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The Way of a Jay

How a western scrub-jay came to accept
gifts from our hands

Western scrub-jayThe first wild bird who trusted me was a western scrub-jay, a California relative of the blue jays who live in the eastern half of the US.

Every morning I used to put out peanuts in the shell on the porch railing. A western scrub-jay often came, but never when my husband and I were outside. From indoors we watched it rush the railing, hardly touching down a foot, and dash with a peanut to the tall hedge at the back of our yard.

Little by little the jay got used to us, and one evening it sailed on spread wings to the railing while I was on the porch. It froze for a moment looking at me, seized the peanut, and was gone.

Trail toward a prize

Next morning I made a trail of peanuts along the railing, ending an arm's length from where I settled down in my chair, with the leftover peanuts piled beside me on the railing.

From the tall hedge, the jay swooped to the railing, landing at the far end of the peanut trail. Motionless, it eyed me. It cawed, letting out a puff of steam from its black beak.

The jay cocked its head, looking in staccato jerks along the line of peanuts. Disregarding my carefully contrived trail, the bird bounded toward me until it arrived at the pile by my side. It picked up a peanut and then, carrying the nut in its bill, it shrieked as if with triumph all the way to the hedge.

Why the bird approached so close I could only guess. I suppose the heap of food must have seemed a richer prize than the single peanuts along the railing.

Dance of apprehension

Having once demonstrated such boldness, the jay again became chary. It approached my offerings in a dance of apprehension, hopping sidewise toward a peanut, pausing to glare at me or flash away in alarm.

Scrub-jay takes peanutYet within a few days, the bird accepted a peanut from my hand.

The jay seemed to regard this breakthrough with as much elation as I did. It came back immediately for another peanut and then took twenty in succession. The bird carried each to the lawn and hammered it through the tough matted grass with its beak before returning for another.

We began to call the jay Jimmy, after President Jimmy Carter, also a planter of peanuts. Since male and female jays look alike, we didn't actually know the bird's gender, but we couldn't keep calling such an intensely alive being "it."

A new friend

That summer my husband's parents came to visit, and Jimmy made a new friend. When my father-in-law sat on the porch in the sun to ease his arthritis, Jimmy hopped to the railing, clearly expecting a reward.

I took the jar of peanuts out to Dad, and he offered one on his open palm. Jimmy hopped easily onto Dad's hand for a peanut. Soon I looked out the window and saw the jay leaning back, feet braced against a trousered knee, tugging mightily on a peanut held in a gnarled hand, and I saw a man with his face in a broad, untroubled smile.

Jimmy raced back and forth between Dad and the storehouse lawn. Here was a human who would stay with the job. The yard rang with the bird's delighted shrieks.

Dad put a peanut in his cuff. Jimmy watched and then landed on Dad's shoe and plucked out the peanut. Next Dad pretended to hide a peanut in his cuff but actually concealed it under his hand. No fool, Jimmy flew to Dad's knee and probed under the hand, pulled out the peanut, and cawed as if laughing.

A legacy of trust

We had quite a few visits from my husband's parents through that summer and fall, and we used to kid Dad, saying we wondered whether he was coming to see Jimmy or us.

Diane and JimmyOur friendship with Jimmy benefited from Dad's visits, however, for every advance of trust that Dad earned was immediately bestowed upon our whole family.

My husband's father died that year. My last recollections of him are of a man sitting on a sunny porch, playing tug-of-war with a wild bird.

Jimmy found a mate the next spring, a shy creature, who did not come to our porch. We saw the two birds carrying sticks into the dense top of an oleander in our yard, and a few weeks later we heard the squeals of hungry baby birds.

One day I noticed the birds' alarm calls in the back yard. Running outside, I saw the jays furiously diving at a neighbor's cat. I shooed the cat off, but it came back, and it did so day after day.

One day Jimmy did not come to the porch. The peanuts remained all day in the sun.

Later, I found one blue wing on the lawn back yard.

The single parent

I did not know whether Jimmy's mate would be able to feed the babies and defend them alone. We saw her ferrying food to her nestlings all day long. She even began to come to the porch, though not to our hands. We offered mealworms to her in a little dish, and she accepted them enthusiastically and carried them to her young.

Diane PorterOne day a young jay came with her to the porch. Still in its fluffy baby feathers, it landed awkwardly on the porch railing. Its mother put a seed into its beak. We called the baby bird Jimmy, in honor of the invincibility of life.

Story first appeared in The Iowa Source.
Copyright 1999-2006 by Diane Porter
Photos copyright 1999-2006 by Michael and Diane Porter



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