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XI

THE BLUE JAY


BLUE JAY
1. Male   2,3. Females

SOME years ago, as the story comes to me, two collectors of birds met by accident in South America, one of them from Europe, the other from the United States. “There is one bird that I would rather see than any other in the world,” said the European. “It is the handsomest of all the birds that fly, to my thinking, although I know it only in the cabinet. You have it in North America, but I suppose you do not often see it. I mean the blue jay.”

What the American answered in words, I do not know; but I am pretty confident that he smiled. The European might almost as well have said that he supposed Boston people did not often see an English sparrow. Not that the blue jay swarms everywhere as the foreign spar row swarms in our American cities; but it is so common, so noisy, so conspicuous, and so unmistakable, that it is, or ought to be, almost an everyday sight to all country dwellers.

Strange as it seems, however, I find many people who do not know the jay when they see it. In late winter, say toward the end of February, when I begin to be on the lookout for the first bluebird of the year, I am all but certain to have word brought to me by some one of the village school-teachers that bluebirds have al ready come. Johnny This or Jimmy That saw one near his house several weeks ago! That “several weeks ago” makes me suspicious, and on following up the matter I discover that John and James have seen a large blue bird, larger than a robin, with some black and white on him — all white underneath — and wearing a tall crest or topknot. Then I know that they have mistaken a blue bird for a bluebird. They have seen a blue jay, a bird of a very different feather. He has been with us all winter, as he always is, and has been in sight from my windows daily. So easy is it for boys and men to guess at things, and guess wrong.

The jay is a relative of the crow, and has much of the crow’s cleverness, with more than the crow’s beauty. Like the crow, if he has an errand near houses, he makes a point of doing it in the early morning before the folks who live in the houses have begun to stir about. In fact, he knows us, in some respects at least, better than we know him, and habitually takes advantage of what no doubt seems to him a custom of very late rising on the part of human beings.

Among small birds of all sorts he bears a decidedly bad name. In nesting time you may hear them uttering a chorus of loud and bitter laments as often as he appears among them. Their eggs and young are in danger, and they join forces to worry him and drive him away. One bird sounds the alarm, another hears him and hastens to see what is going on, and in a few minutes the whole neighborhood is awake. And it stays awake till the jay moves off. After that piece of evidence, you do not need to see him doing mischief. The little birds’ behavior is sufficiently convincing. As Thoreau said, the presence of a trout in the milk is something like proof.

And jays, in their turn, club together against enemies larger than themselves. Last autumn I was walking through the woods with a friend, — a city schoolmaster eager for knowledge, as every schoolmaster ought to be, — when we heard a great screaming of blue jays from a swampy thicket on our right hand.

“Now what do you suppose the birds mean by all that outcry?” said my friend.

I answered that very likely there was a hawk or an owl there.

“Let’s go and see,” said the master, and we turned in that direction. Sure enough, we soon came face to face with a large hen-hawk perched in one of the trees, while the jays, one after another, were dashing as near him as they dared, yelling at him as they passed.

At our nearer approach the hawk took wing; then the jays disappeared, and silence fell upon the woods. And I dare say the schoolmaster gave me credit for being a wondrously wise man!

The jay has many notes, and once in a great while may even be heard indulging in something like a warble. One of his most musical calls sounds to my ears a little like the word “lily.”

He seems to be very fond of acorns, and is frequently to be seen standing upon a limb, holding an acorn under his claw and hammering it to pieces with all the force of his stout bill. When angered, he scolds violently, bobbing up and down in a most ridiculous manner. In fact, he is of a highly nervous temperament, and as full of gesticulations as a Frenchman.

To me he is especially a bird of autumn. At that season the woods are loud with his clarion, and as I listen to it I can often feel myself a boy again, rambling in the woods that knew me in my school-days. With all his faults — his ill treatment of small birds, I mean — I should be sorry to have his numbers greatly diminished.


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