In the video below, notice the blue jay in the lower middle of the screen. I call him Picky Pete. He shakes the shells and only takes the heaviest one, or the one with two peanuts not just one. A few others do this too. But Picky Pete is very particular.
It's best to start a discussion about bird friendships with a quote from one of our best storytellers. (Because friendships always involve trading stories).
“Now there is more to a blue jay than any other animal. He has got more different kinds of feeling. Whatever a blue jay feels he can put into language, and not mere commonplace language, but straight out and out book talk, and there is such a command of language. You never saw a blue jay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser. Now you must call a jay a bird, and so he is in a measure, because he wears feathers and don't belong to any church, but otherwise he is just as human nature made him. A bluejay hasn't any more principle than an ex-congressman, and he will steal, deceive and betray four times out of five; and as for the sacredness of an obligation, you cannot scare him in the detail of principle. He talks the best grammar of all the animals. ….A bluejay is human; he has got all a man's faculties and a man's weakness. He likes especially scandal; he knows when he is an ass as well as you do.” Mark Twain-- Morals Lecture, 7/15/1895; also, A Tramp Abroad
I think Mark Twain understood the world of corvids because he may have experienced friendship with the bird. So have I. Well, I’ve experienced engaging with them, and I call this engagement friendship. How does one start a friendship with a bird?
All friendships begin food. In our human world, we also drink, so usually we eat and drink a little wine or seltzer, someone tells a story, another person tells a story, someone asks questions about the story, the storyteller answers. Then another story is told. And on and on.
Friendships in the bird world are not that different. You cannot connect with a bird unless you bring food. And make sure you eat, too. Don’t just feed them, take time out a few times a week in the afternoon and eat with them. Eat the same thing you’re giving to them. That way, they trust you. In the spring, I’ll sit a while, eating shelled, unsalted roasted peanuts. Then I share. I don't have to share water because I live by a pond. But if you don’t live by fresh water, maybe put out a cheap fountain or a large dog bowl filled with fresh, cool water.
Then you talk.
Make sure your talk is easy, upbeat, friendly. Sure, they don’t understand your language, but they, like all animals, understand energy. And with birds? Not only is the energy of voice important, but also the melody of voice is important.
Birds particularly understand energy and melody of voice because they’re musical artists. And, well, they're noisy. No animal makes noise like the bird. They sing. They yell. They chirp. They warn. Some birds sing and wait for another partner far off in the wetlands to answer with the same melody but slightly altered notes.
The birding community used to believe only the male birds were noisy, because the male sang to attract females during mating season. Females were not noisy because it was not their job to perform. This theory of a blabbermouth male bird and quiet female bird existed for quite a while, until the early twenty-first century when it was clearly debunked. Even before I read about these theories and eventual debunking, I knew female birds talked. I saw them talk. Gender differentiation is easy with certain bird species, like the cardinals. The female cardinal, with her brown feathers and orange bill, is quite distinct from her bright red male counterpart. Not only have I witnessed the female cardinal singing, I’ve suspected her songs --a unique combination of notes-- are replicated by a return of the same notes from a far-off location in the distant wetlands. She then sings the same notes again and again, and again and again a response returns with a slight, very slight, alteration of melody. It’s obvious she’s talking to a mate or offspring far away.
According to Jennifer Ackerman (THE BIRD WAY, a great book) one of the reasons scientists used to assume female birds did very little vocalizations had more to do with who was studying birds than any revelation. It turns out ornithology used to be populated predominately by male scientists who tended to spend more time studying the male bird population. Once this scientific discipline included more women, more knowledge about female birds was collected. Then of course, the iPhone came along, allowing all of us to bear witness to bird activity. And wala! Theories like the quiet female bird were debunked--by female scientists and all of us backyard sophomoric birders. We’re important!
It’s very difficult to distinguish the sex of blue jays because their coloring is the same regardless of gender. But during nesting season, I assume the blue jays with dirty chests are females because females sit on the nest way more than men. Female jays are smaller and are not as scream-y as men, but they do screech, chirp, even sing. They particularly make noise when dealing with their very whiney and obnoxious babies. No other baby bird is as obnoxious as the blue jay baby bird. I suppose they start out noisy as practice, because the world of the blue jay is the noisiest world of all birds. Well, at least in my neighborhood, the blue jay is by far the biggest blabbermouth. I have not heard any other bird make the variety of noises the blue jay makes. Blue jays mimic other birds, particularly the hawk. They warn. They sing happy songs. They gurgle. Sometimes, I suspect, they create sounds just for a human nice enough to feed them. Me. But that could be my imagination.
So, OK. Birds talk. Blue jays talk a lot. Males talk more, but females also talk. Moving on to friendships.
I began introducing myself by eating peanuts outside after I filled the birding trays. I then tossed a few to the jays. At first, I’d toss only one at a time, but eventually I decided handfuls were better. Limiting feeding to one peanut at a time risks food competition. It’s best to toss enough out so all animals don’t feel the need to fight for food. After a while, I decided to see if I could use food to change some bad behavior.
We have too many grackles in our area in the spring. They flock the yard and crowd out the feeder and bully birds. There were so many, no way could I ever engage, and I didn’t think they were intelligent enough to truly engage. Furthermore, they were very obnoxious. They bullied birds, filled my yard, hoarded feeders. I clapped them away. However, while I clapped off grackles who came by the dozens, I merely stood up if I witnessed the blue jays behaving like the grackle—crowding out feeders, bullying small birds. I didn’t clap a blue jay away because I thought they were very intelligent, interesting and trainable.
I suspected the blue jays would notice that I clapped away grackles but merely stood up if blue jays misbehaved—again, misbehavior being defined as more than one eating at a time on feeder, or bullying sparrows. If I thought they were behaving well, I’d toss lots of peanuts.
Eventually, over time, I think blue jays noticed that 1. I never clapped them away and 2. food depended upon their behavior.
It took a while, but blue jays are now nicer at the feeder. I never see them bully small birds. During winter, it’s hard to tell whether I’m watching the core family that doesn’t migrate or new migrators. I suspect most are core since I believe only the juveniles and younger birds migrate. (This is controversial among bird behaviorists. Most think only about 20% migrate). But I do think some who join my core group are migrators. If there are migrators, then at least the ones I observe are behaving well, too. Which leads me to wonder if the core crowd warns them. Are they talking to each other?
Some of the blue jays even try to help me keep grackles away from the feeder. They also appear to warn squirrels when their great nemesis —the red-tailed hawk—circles above them. This is interesting since squirrels compete with blue jays for acorns and my peanuts etc. Also, squirrels are considered a threat during nesting season. So, I have a theory. I like squirrels. A few of the squirrels—usually young males, rarely female—will walk right up and take a peanut from my hand. I toss peanuts to the blue jays in the yard and feed a few squirrels near me to stave off food competition. The blue jays seem to understand that, while squirrels are very obnoxious creatures, in my yard, they’re OK.
But friendships are not just about taking. They're also about giving. Corvids, specifically my blue jays, give back. Yes, they do. I have stories! I have proof! Wait for it.
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.