I think I know every way that blue jays are objectionable birds. They’re raucous. They’re aggressive. They prey on those weaker than themselves, and the young of those weaker than themselves. We had a towhee nest in a trellis on our back porch, and the towhees went about their business and laid their eggs, and in no time a scrub jay, maybe a couple of them, found about about it, and before we could stop nature from happening, the jays were having a scrambled towhee egg brunch.
Still. In the eye of this beholder they are beautiful. The blue plumage, for one thing. And their apparent intelligence. They just look like they’re sizing things up when you watch them. They give the impression that they’re watching you, too. Some California researchers believe our western scrub jays hold a form of funeral (more like a group alarm) when one of their jay buddies flies on to the next life (here’s a BBC story: Birds hold ‘funerals’ for dead; and a video of one of these gatherings).
The last couple of days, I’ve been trying to reclaim the North Forty (a.k.a., the backyard). A scrub jay showed up yesterday as I cleared weeds, and followed along behind me to pick over whatever I uncovered. This afternoon, same routine. This bird appeared entirely unafraid; I can’t decide if it’s a young one who hasn’t learned how untrustworthy the Wingless Two-Leggers are, or an older bird that has figured out that Berkeley is full of Bird Huggers.
Anyway. The bird hung around as long as I was clearing the ground. As soon as I stopped, it moved on, probably to the next easy meal.
If you watch birds at all, you’ve got to feel conflicted about blue jays.
They’re beautiful. They’re bold and tough. I’ve always enjoyed watching their looping, swooping flight.
They’re also noisy to a fault; calling them aggressive understates the case. They’re opportunists of the first order, and if something weaker gives them an opening — like the towhees that built a nest next to our house last year only to watch a jay raid it and smash the eggs — they exploit it instantly. I tried to chase away the jay last year, but it was a lot better at its business that I was. It’s instinct, I know, not Karl Rove-like calculation, that drives the birds’ behavior (and I apologize to the birds, even if they’re mere beasts, for comparing them in any way to Karl Rove).
This spring, a couple of western scrub jays have built a nest within a couple of feet of the one the towhees abandoned, with prejudice, last year. We can just see the new nest near the top of a potato bush growing along the side of our back porch: just a non-descript bundle of sticks. But a couple of jays have been back and forth from that spot for a good couple weeks. It’s too high to see into, and well enough screened that it was hard to see whether there were any eggs up there.
Yesterday, one of the jays flew over my head to the nest. I could hear some weak little chirping. The new jays were hatched. Today, that chirping is a little louder. Now I find myself rooting for this little clutch of birds, even if they’re going to turn out to be a bunch of heartless (if handsome) marauders.
[The picture: That’s one of the parent scrub jays on our back porch this afternoon, along with genuine salvaged Wrigley Field seats, an extension cord, and other flotsam.]
A couple of towhees — they’re sparrow-like little brown birds, common here — showed the shocking lack of judgment to build a nest in a potato vine on our back porch. They must have worked fast, too, because one day I had no idea they had moved in and the next they were fighting a scrub jay to protect their place. Kate and I heard the commotion early Sunday morning, and even our neighbor on that side of the house commented on it.
The towhees seemed to have two tactics to try to fend off the jay, which we figured was trying to get at any eggs they had in the nest. First, one of the birds would try to distract the jay by fluttering weakly along the ground near the nest; second, if the jay took that bait, both birds would fly into a bush nearby, puff their feathers up, and try to counterattack the bigger bird. But the jay wasn’t to be distracted, and kept coming back to the next despite a local human’s attempt at intervention. He, or she, was scared off several times, but kept returning. When he was gone, one of the towhees would return to sit on the nest. But eventually I looked out and saw the jay was standing on the little round of twigs and pecking at something.
I chased him off and climbed up to take a look inside the next. Sure enough: two pale blue eggs, one perfect and one broken. With the jay gone, the smaller birds returned to take a look. They didn’t leave, but neither did they sit on the nest again. The jay come back once more and got at the second egg, and after a little while, the towhees were gone. The last time I looked in the nest, the ants were already at work on what had been left behind.