The blue jay vs. the squirrels

How one brave blue jay took on the squirrels.

Design Pics/Newscom
Songbird: A fledgling blue jay finds a roost on a tree branch. Blue jays make their home in central and eastern North America.

The blue jay speaks with the jagged voice of an old street vendor. A songbird she's not. But busy she is, trying to drain the feeder of its sunflower seeds and fending away squirrels determined to do the same or else she is off gathering bugs for her furry, gray progeny.

I see this tiny creature a short distance off, new to the world, balancing on the handle of a one-horse plow, an artifact of another century, its rusted steel blade lodged in the earth for a dozen years now. The chick is as motionless as the plow, and illuminated by a shaft of light through the canopy of maples, pines, and sweet gum trees. This incandescence brings to mind the cards with painted pictures of kneeling saints bathed in heavenly brilliance that priests used to distribute when I was a child.

My view of the baby jay is suddenly obliterated by the arrival of its mighty parent. Sweeping down, wings fully out, the mother blue jay pushes something into the throat of her young, then flies off.

Although I don't know much about birds, I have a book, "Birds of North America," which helps me identify those I see. But I never seem able to match the mellifluous warbling, or even the eruptive sounds that emerge from the trees with the birds themselves. I hear the twittering, the whistling, the mysterious and subdued hoot of the owl, and the mewing of the catbird, but I never see them.

There is bird song in the air through the daylight hours as all sorts flit and swoop through the garden. Some even fly backward (the hummingbirds). I see the shrike dart to the feeder, then to a limb to consume its take-away, then it speeds back. A woodpecker struts goofily up a tree. Who needs wings?

The blue jays are not my favorites: They bring joy to the eyes but they are loud and aggressive. I wonder, are the sounds they make universal? Do the jays here in this small place in Delaware speak the same language as, say, jays in Florida or Maine?

Why such a question? Because some years back I met a man named Lance Workman who discovered that robins in his native Wales speak differently from those in Sussex, far to the southeast in England.

He had recorded the songs of these stay-at-home birds – unlike American robins, which migrate – and fed them into a machine he called a sonograph, which translates sounds into graphics on paper. The visual representations varied; the songs were different in pitch, lilt, and intonation.

The biological psychologist concluded that the birds had regional accents, and as it is with many provincials, visitors were often eyed with suspicion.

"I played their song [that of the Welsh robins] to other robins [in Sussex] and used dummy robins to see if they would attack," said Dr. Workman. "I found they struck a defense posture when they heard the alien bird song, ruffled their breast feathers, sang louder and longer, and even attacked the models."

Within our particular green world, I can't decide which is more thuggish, the jays, many of which do not migrate, or the squirrels.

The squirrels come to dine each day on the squirrel-proof feeder. (Ha!) They arrive in threes and scare the birds with their long claws and teeth.

As I said, I don't know much about birds, and probably less about squirrels, except that they are clever, funny, and infuriating all at once. Maybe I need a book about squirrels.

I have a friend who spends much of his time reading Robert Burns and probably just as much time inventing ways to defeat the squirrels' efforts to steal food meant for the birds. He puts the seed on a platform 10 feet high with an aluminum cone on the supporting pipe to keep the squirrels away.

This friend brought me a gift one day, a small flat, round piece of wood with a minute bench on it, and a long screw rising in front of the bench to hold a corncob firm and perpendicular. This platform was supported by a length of pipe stuck into the ground.

After securing a corncob on the device, I moved to the porch and watched the first squirrel leap up, eat a few rows of corn, then jump off. Soon another followed, then another, and I began to hope this would distract them from my bird feeder.


The next day I came out to witness a clash of feather and fur. The jay, probably tired of being pushed away from the feeder, but with immense courage all the same, brought her swordlike beak to bear against the squirrel. In one swift swoop, she scared him off the platform, then proceeded to peck off about five rows of kernels.

The squirrels below were chattering and running around like beheaded chickens, wondering what had happened.

I felt no sympathy for their confusion. Rather, I thought we had won one for the baby jay.

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