Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The blue jay, the president of birds

     Just when I thought the whole summer would be a waste, three blue jays showed up at my feeder Monday.  I lingered to admire them too long, and didn't get a shot of the trio as they flapped around, vying for position at the seed trough.  Not that an iPhone can shoot birds that aren't roasted and on a platter.
     John Jay Audubon did a much better job of capturing a trio of blue jays. 
     Of course he had the luxury of killing them so they'd sit still for their portraits.
      Mine spent about half a minute pecking at their lunch. Then they were gone, no doubt off to visit with their wide range of admirers, which are many for these handsome if vexing birds.
     "Their saucy, independent airs, sprightly manners, brilliant colors, and jaunty, plumed caps have gained them many friends," F.E.L. Beal notes in his 1897, The Blue Jay and its Food."
     I try not to find augury in birds, but I took a certain meaning from their arrival at this perilous point in time, knowing that blue jays are particularly American birds.
     "The blue jay, Cyanocitto cristato (from the Greek kyanos, "blue," and kitta, "jay"), is the very first bird in Alexander Wilson's famous nineteenth-century American Ornithology," Diana Wells writes in her essential book 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. "And he surmised, correctly, that this 'beau among the feathered tenants of our woods' is uniquely American."  
    This is not necessarily a compliment. Audubon depicts his trio of blue jays gobbling another bird's eggs.
     "Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief," Audubon writes. "That selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection." 
    Yeah, a lot of that going around...
    "Selfishness, duplicity, and malice." I sense a replacement for the eagle as our national symbol, depending of course on how the election goes this November.
      The blue jay's range does include most of the southern half of Canada, and in 1976 the otherwise anodyne city of Toronto appropriated the blue jay for the name of its expansion baseball team. "The Blue Jays" was picked among 4,000 entries by the majority owner, Labatt Breweries, though common wisdom is that the color won the day more than the bird itself: Labatt's Blue is their major brand of beer, so the team was always going to be the "Blue Somethings." Blue Bells, Blue Valentines, Blue Bayous—when you think of the alternates, it almost had to be Blue Jays. 
    The "blue" in the name doesn't need any commentary. The "jay" is obviously an onomatopoeia, as the things are always screaming "jaaayy, jaaayy!" The Oxford English Dictionary traces "jay" back 700 years in connection with "a common European bird, Garrullus glandarius, in structure and noisy clattering resembling the magpie, but in habits arboreal, and having a plumage of striking appearance, in which vivid tints of blue are heightened by bars of jet-black and patches of white."
     Wells points out that the word was often used to describe a silly person—hence "jaywalker"—but this is unfair, since "in fact, like all corvids, jays are very intelligent." ("Corvid" is a general term for large birds with clawed feet adapted for perching, including crows, ravens, magpies and jays). 
     A very stable bird genius, perhaps.
    "He is more tyrannical than brave," Aubudon writes, "and like most boasters, domineers over the feeble, dreads the strong, and flies even from his equals. In many cases he is a downright coward.
     Yup, we know the type.


  1. In third grade, my teacher said "J.J.'s a baby's name. We need to give you a name." So, startled (and upset), I suggested "Jay?" And thus it was until...I do dig when Familiars refer to me as "Jaybird," which is another holdover from childhood. But what I really wanted to say was "The President of Birds" sounds like a poem title, like Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice Cream." In a way, though, you've rather astutely taken the steam out of the concept here.

  2. We have multiple bird feeders and bathing options in our yard out here in McHenry County. Often looks like O'Hare Airport with constant traffic all day. You are dead on regarding the blue jays. They are beautiful to be sure, but are the ultimate bullies. So perfect to call them the president of birds.

  3. Blue jays are everywhere in my central Austin neighborhood- copious numbers in every tree, screeching all day long.

    In Chicago the crows in Rogers Park were the same, domineering and ubiquitous. I bemoaned their annoying caws that woke me up before I was ready day after day, but then I eventually learned to love them in the "if you can't beat them, join them," kind of way. Sometimes I'd go down to the lake on cold snowy days and enjoy their black feathers against the white snow, and watch them do their cool dances and talk to each other. I can even do a mean crow call. The Audobon website is a great place to learn things such as that crows are among the smartest birds in the world, and "crows and ravens are more like primates. They have exceptionally large forebrains, the domain of analytical thought, higher-level sensory processing, and flexible behavior." https://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2016/meet-bird-brainiacs-american-crow

    Today the jays in Austin are so loud that they make me jump when they shriek unexpectedly from a tree while I'm on a walkabout. I almost love them like I learned to do with the crows, but it's hard. I will start here: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/blue-jay.

  4. My sister in Minnesota loves birds and used to strap her infant daughter on her back (she's 32 now), grab her binoculars and bird book, and go out looking for them. And she had a bird feeder in front of her kitchen window.

    But she hated the blue jays. Couldn't stand their squawking and their boorish behavior. Sis would sit by the window screen and zap them with a squirt gun. Got a big kick out of it. I enjoyed watching my sister do it, but that got old, and pretty fast.

    Blue jays are noisy bullies, and are quite domineering creatures. They're also "chazzers" in their feeding habits...the word means "pigs" in Yiddish. They want it all for themselves, and will do whatever it takes to get it. The blue jay is the most American bird of all. Would have been a perfect name for the baseball club that represents Washington D.C.

    Hey, maybe the now-nameless Washington Football Team could adopt that bird's name. The NFL is all the things blue jays are...and more.

  5. Gee, when I saw this post titled "the president of birds" I thought it was going to be a compliment. Being aware of the reputation of blue jays ... and of the current Birdbrain-in-Chief ... I should have known better.

    I would counter with the idea that the cardinal is the Cardinal of birds, but I don't have any clever analogies to go with that, alas. Plus, there's the whole "mascot of the Yankees of the National League" that those striking birds are stuck with. They're certainly a lot more common around here than blue jays, as far as I can tell, so they've got that going for them.

    After consulting your OED, did you happen to pick up a thesaurus, Neil? I find it kinda curious that there essentially seems to be only one synonym for the word "bird."

    1. Reading this comment now, it comes off like I was taunting you, or something. Which I wasn't. I've just noticed before that there aren't many synonyms for bird, and I think that's somewhat interesting.

  6. Today was a good day to be out birding, so I didn’t read your column until after dinner
    . F. Schuyler Mathews writes in his (odd) book, “Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music” (1904), “This splendid fellow is the rascal of the bird community, the bully and tease of all creatures smaller than himself, and, so far as actions are concerned, “the clown of the circus”.
    That fits with your title!
    I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the blue jay’s joy in “crying wolf”.
    One of its favorite tactics is to imitate a Red Shouldered Hawk, and come shrieking toward a bird feeder while making the call of the Red-Shouldered Hawk. All the birds at the feeder scatter in fear, and the blue jay then has the bird buffet table all to himself.
    Again, also apt and fitting with your title.
    Thank you for writing about the birds in your backyard!


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