...Before the story, a reminder. My novel, DEAD FISH and What the Blue jays Know, will be released on Earth Day, April 22. (publisher Bedazzled Ink Publishing). Preorder is available now. Click on the book cover above. Thanks.
OK...now back to blue jays and squirrels.
Based upon my various readings, blue jays are very territorial, particularly during nesting season. However, does the blue jay territorial protective instinct extend beyond the nest, beyond even their own extended family?
All birds police territories, particularly the red-winged blackbird, one of the most vicious creatures on earth if you're anywhere near its nest. I've seen red winged blackbirds attack hawks, herons, crows. They're certainly the most courageous birds around. But their primary concern is that nest. They could care less about the rest of the neighborhood.
I suspect bird specialists would say the same thing about the blue jays. They protect each other, the nest, and all the screaming relates to their self-interest. But, I don't know. Based upon my observations, blue jays appear to protect the yard and everyone in it, not simply their clan. I've seen them congregate and mob alert for reasons that go beyond self-interest. They are on constant alert during nesting season. They're on alert off season, too, just not dramatically. I have seen them protect rodents you'd never believe they'd care about.
Like squirrels. Squirrels are yet another creature most people find obnoxious. Like the blue jay, they can be aggressive at the bird feeder. They're eager to try different acrobatic feats necessary to conquer the feeder challenge. This makes them a pain to manage. It's really hard to figure out a way to protect the feeder and provide cover in case of hawks. Providing that cover for the birds requires placing the bird feeder close to bushes and small trees, which then gives the athletic squirrel that little boost up to conquer the bird feeder. This makes them difficult. But I like difficult.
OK, I toss squirrels peanuts,. I know. I still do it because I toss blue jays peanuts and if I toss blue jays peanuts, the squirrels want some, too. On some spring days I've managed to entice a few to take a peanut from my hand. Feeding jays and squirrels at the same time can cause competition, which I do not want, so I toss peanuts to blue jays in a particularly location--closer to the feeder, and to the squirrels in another location--close to the Japanese maple. I toss enough so there's no need to quarrel. I've actually made friends with one squirrel who had no tail. I have no idea why she was missing a tail, only assumed it probably had something to do with determination-- determination not to be eaten by a Red-tailed hawk. Anyway, I liked the tailless squirrel and it liked me. It would walk right up to me. I still miss her. She's now resting in peace. The hawk won. When the tail is gone, there's nothing left to chew off in order to escape, I suppose.
So, the squirrels, while annoying, became a part of the yard family.
Cooper's hawks are the greatest threat to birds, and are most prevalent around the feeder. But when the squirrels congregate, the Red-tailed hawks visit, too, because a squirrel dinner is like steak for the Red-tailed hawks.
A little bit about that screaming first. The blue jay screaming is actually an alert system. Unlike other bird's quick alarms then escapes-- the blue jays coordinate their voices. One stands guard, then screams his warning to another who then conveys his message to the others.. and so on. If the hawk puts prey in imminent danger, the blue jay mob alert begins. This alert is meant to warn their own immediate nesting area, but I also believed they intend to police the entire territory. When I say territory, I don't mean my yard, but perhaps several yards. They flock everywhere, screaming alarms about predators to everyone.
One day they mob alerted right by my feeder. My window in my study faces the feeder and I counted at least two dozen blue jays -- all mob alert screaming. A few jays appeared to be looking through my window at me as they screamed. By the time I made it to the back door, blue jays were everywhere. At least three dozen blue jays were up in the white pine, birch, and one large fir. They were hysterical, so hysterical I imagined a Cooper's hawk or Sharpie was eating an offspring. I opened the door expecting to see a horror story.
In the yard stood a huge, imperious looking Red-tailed hawk staring at the feeder. Actually, not the feeder, but the tube that covers the feeder stand--which protects it from squirrels and raccoons (see below). I opened the door and the hawk flew away, the blue jays trailing him. I at first didn't realize the hawk was staring at the tube, so I assumed the prey was in the yard or up a tree. I walked around and heard this faint dog whine. As I approached the feeder the dog whine grew louder. It came from inside the tube. There was no dog inside the tube, there was a squirrel, hanging on to the stand for dear life. It had crawled up the tube to hide, then found itself trapped. The hawk knew it couldn't hold on forever and was patiently waiting for his meal.
When I knocked on the tube, the squirrel fell down and ran for its life, stopping briefly at the tree to look back and regard me. The yard went quiet. The blue jays were gone.
They had all saved one squirrel.
OK, this is not too unusual. As I mentioned, mob alerts are common with jays. But in this case, there were literally dozens of blue jays, pulled from every nesting area. I don't think our yard, or even the adjacent yards, have this many blue jays. They were called in. And a few blue jays had looked into my window, screaming at me. The alert was more than a warning to all of their species, or even birds. This huge raptor was no real threat to the birds. He only wanted one thing and one thing only--the squirrel. And these birds wanted to save that one squirrel. Dozens and dozens of of them wanted to save this one squirrel.
Why? Why this one squirrel? I wondered if it was one of the squirrels I had fed one day. The only way I could actually identify squirrels was the missing tail, back when the tailless squirrel was alive. I could also distinguish females from the males during mating season. But other than that, I just didn't know. But I bet the blue jays could tell one squirrel from another. Maybe this was one of the squirrels who took peanuts from my hand. This may have marked it as special friend, and so when it looked like it was about to be eaten, they all went on high alert.
Or maybe not. Maybe they simply protect anything in their territory. Squirrels were part of their territory. But if they did save this one squirrel because by feeding squirrels when I fed them, I had somehow created this "family." Does this means the blue jays have a certain level of empathy and community loyalty that goes beyond their species?
So, when the blue jays scream, I think of that squirrel and realize that scream may be about a huge Red-tailed or broad shouldered hawk, not just a bird eater. They scream quite often because hawks fly over our area often. I wave at hawks when I see them to warn the birds.
But what if a huge hawk was accepted by me? OK, cautiously accepted (One cannot completely trust a hawk). What if I befriended a hawk big enough not to be a threat to birds, perhaps one that helps them by chasing away the Cooper's hawk? Would they scream at this hawk? Could they accept a hawk, as long as that hawk agreed never to eat them? That's the next story.
First an announcement about my novel, DEAD FIISH and What the Blue Jays Know. It will now be released April 22. Earth Day. Certainly an appropriate day for a novel about environmental activists with talking corvids as characters.
OK. Now a few pictures. Then a story.
So, what does the picture up above on the right have to do with the bird on the left? And the dogs to the left?
The first dog, the fawn bulldog, is Dora. In this picture she is still able to walk in the woods, something she loved to do, but couldn't do well.
In my last post, I discussed the difficulty of managing Dora, who eventually was legally blind and deaf, because of her arthritis and tendency to wander. The picture above was her last walk in the woods. Sadly, she deteriorated fast after this picture. That deterioration resulted in constant wandering.
Daisy protected her, or at least stayed by her, which gave me comfort. I felt OK when Daisy was in the yard and that was a false sense of security. Because as much as Daisy looked after Dora, she was unreliable. Sometimes she'd bark when Dora went wanderer mode. Sometimes she'd just trot back to the door. So, I still had to be careful when I let them out.
When Dora went wanderer mode, she'd walk to this huge white pine near the fence. Beyond this white pine was an incline, a very slight incline, but still enough of a slope to be a problem for a dog with severe arthritis. But if the dog managed this incline, she would reach the fence where she could use it, along with the nose, for guidance. Using the fence as guidance, Dora would wobble around the property, ending up at the shed. Once Dora hit the shed, she was happy because behind the shed was a place with no fence, which meant the pond was there for her. She knew if she could get around that shed, she'd be mere yards from the pond. I have no idea why she wanted to be in that pond. I suspect the pond had a strong smell and it was this smell that pulled at her. When you can't see and can't hear, I suppose you gravitate towards smells because it's the one thing you can do. Or maybe she just wanted to swim, even though she couldn't swim, she could barely walk. The rocks near the pond were slippery and if she fell in, she would have drowned.
I would watch her and always run out to retrieve her right when she hit that hill. Sometimes I'd let her reach the fence and watch her walk its periphery. I had a leash but always forgot it, or could not find it when Dora reached the danger zone. I eventually tied the leash to the door, but when I saw her at the fence, or worse, gone, I didn't spend the time untying the leash, I just opened the door and ran out. I know what this makes me look like. I know . It's just that when I am focussed, I forget things. And while I went out with her when I could, she usually stayed out, or wanted to stay out, a long time. I'd go back inside and look out the window. If I ever saw her gone or about to leave, I'd run out, several times forgetting my leash.
Running after a rather heavy bulldog with no leash usually means one has to break one's back to get the bulldog home. I have a bad back and there were days it didn't work after either carrying her home, or leaning over, pulling her home, whilst she resisted.
Then there was one day I went inside for a moment, quick moment. Truly, it was a breath of a moment. I do not know what happened in that moment, why I went inside, but I came back outside and there was Daisy, looking a bit sheepish. And no Dora. I ran around the yard, the neighbor's yard. No Dora. I don't know why I didn't see her in the neighbor's yard because she was there, probably by a bush or behind a tree.
I could hear the blue jays, yelling everywhere. I assumed a hawk was in the area. They were in my trees. They were in the neighbor's trees. I wasn't paying that much attention to anything because I started to panic. I ran down the street thinking she had wobbled off. No dog.
As I walked back up the driveway, I saw a flash of fawn in the neighbor's backyard. I could hear the blue jays everywhere. There she was--right by the pond bent over as if she were going to take a big gulp of bacteria infested water, then fall in and drown and die. I yelled. Of course yelling at a deaf dog does no good. She didn't take a gulp. She didn't jump in. She just sniffed and moved towards the water. I started running.
When I reached her, I grabbed her by the collar, but of course she didn't want to go anywhere, which meant I had to pull her, which did no good and wasn't really a healthy way to move an arthritic dog. So, I picked her up and carried her home. She was heavy, I have a bad back. I had to rest a few times, but I finally made it to my house. My back was in bad shape for a few days.
About four days after this drama, we were cleaning the yard and I noticed this black synthetic strap (see photo above) lying on the ground. There were clips on both ends that indicated it was supposed to be attached to something or was meant to attach one object to another. The strap was very light, as light as a pencil.
I could not find anything it was connected to in my yard. We own nothing that required these types of straps. Even our life preservers don't have these straps. I checked the garage, nothing. Shed, nothing. Did it blow in from another property?
Then I realized where I found it. It was slightly beyond the white pine near the incline Dora usually wobbled off to when attempting her wandering escape.
I studied the strap. I realized if I clipped one end to Dora's collar, I could actually use it as a leash. And a leash would obviously be what one would think I needed if one observed me constantly running out and dragging my dog home, or carrying my dog home. Perhaps one who flew above us all and noticed other people using these lines attached to dogs, walking down the street. One would think, well this woman who feeds us is one of the dumb ones. We need to find her a line.
(If you read the book, you can see how this influenced my thinking.)
Did the blue jays find this somewhere and drop it on my property right where Dora usually ended up? It was certainly light enough for bird to carry. Did they think I was kind of dumb and they needed to help me out by finding me this leash? Are Corvids that smart? Well, are they?
I have no idea. Dora eventually left us, but until she passed on, I used this strap. I walked her around the yard with it, just in case the blue jays gave it to me.
I like to write about people, animals, dogs. I enjoy ideas, good books about ideas, funny books about ideas, funny people who have ideas, advocates for people who don't have voices to express their ideas, and animals who have ideas we can't understand.