Meet Our New Neighbors, the (Scrub) Jays!

I believe it was back in May or June of this year when I began to notice two western scrub jays frequenting our backyard. I had to do some research in order to make an accurate identification as to the exact genre of bird. Although we have all manner of birds passing through my wife’s nicely-tended backyard garden, scrub jays, with their bright blue plumage, are definitely rare. Beyond my initial surprise, I gave these unexpected visitors little thought until I began to realize that they were hanging around the backyard, not just passing through. Soon, I noticed them industriously tugging on and pulling off small twigs from the large hedge that runs along the fence-line. It was then that I realized what was happening.

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As I began to watch more closely, I determined that the nest-building site was just inside the hedge, about eye-level from our patio and only four feet from the corner of our house. At a time when I knew both birds were away, I peered into the hedge and determined the exact location of the intertwined twig structure, nicely nestled in a fork of branches. A splendid view of the comings and goings of our new neighbors was had from our kitchen window as well as from the glass patio door. Never in our 41 years in this house had we seen anything quite like this. It was the beginning of what was to become a fascinating saga.

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Three or four weeks after starting to gather “building material,” one of the birds was much less visible. The other became a “frequent flyer,” making trip after trip in and out of the hedge – bringing “lunch,” I presumed. The gallant fellow usually entered the long hedge-row fifteen feet or twenty feet “downstream” of the nest’s position instead of using the front-door and going right to it. The bird would then adroitly “bound” through the hedge to its mate on the nest. At this point, I began to realize that these birds really knew what they were doing; the intent of this behavior was obviously to obscure the nest’s exact location in case anyone was watching – like me!

Four or five weeks passed, with mama jay infrequently seen and papa jay coming and going constantly. When he was not on the move, he was keeping vigil over our back-yard, sometimes from one of our small birch trees and sometimes from the very tip-top of several very tall juniper trees located a significant distance away. The trees were just close enough for me to resolve the form of a jay at the very top monitoring our yard. This happened frequently.

I began to develop an attachment to these two jays and a first-hand respect for birds in general now that I was witnessing, up-close-and-personal, a special part of their life-cycle. Actually observing the instincts of these creatures in action is much more powerful than merely reading about them in a book. I did not know it at the time, but I recently read that scrub jays do operate as “breeding pairs” – a fact which I had begun to assume after watching our two new neighbors and concluding that their exercise would be no “one-night stand.”

At a midway point during this whole process, I sprinkled some cracker crumbs on our patio to see what would happen. It was immediately apparent that they loved my crackers. The male was somewhat reticent about even landing on the patio to grab the tasty tidbits while I stood watching in the patio doorway, several yards away. The female was not shy; she, in fact, quite blew me away by actually coming right up on the doorstep and wolfing down cracker bits less than a foot from the toes of my slippers…as I stood directly over her watching in amazement! She did this the very first time I offered crackers to them! Quite amazing and somewhat like my little hummingbird friends who will land on my hanging feeder at eyeball level with me standing (very still) only three feet away.

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                                         Mama Jay

I have had several years of experience chronicling hummer behavior around our feeder, so I knew that, being flashbulb-quick, their little brains are constantly “calculating” how much time/separation are needed for them to escape a sudden threat. They have great confidence in their judgment, in that respect. For this female jay, a large, thus relatively slow bird, more caution would seem to be in order…or not!

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                                                           Papa Jay

Finally, I sensed that eggs had hatched and there must be baby jays in the nest. I delayed taking a peek for a couple of weeks so as not to intrude. Finally, when I was certain that both adults were on an “errand,” I walked up to the hedge and peered in at the nest. I saw two little blue heads visible over the top of the structure. I moved quickly away, not wanting to be caught peeking by mama and papa. By now, my connection with this whole affair and the two adult jays was such that I felt guilty for my prying and for “betraying their trust!”

One evening, about two weeks later, I could sense unusual activity in progress. I thought to myself, “Must be time to leave the nest.” Standing just outside the patio door, monitoring events with a cup of tea in hand, I suddenly heard a rustle in the hedge, right near the nest – like a baby bird falling through the branches. Immediately, I could hear a plaintive little squawking sound coming from ground level underneath the hedge, but I could see nothing. This continued for ten or fifteen minutes accompanied by much activity on the part of the adults who were flitting among various other tall shrubs in our backyard. The squawking stopped, and it soon became apparent to me that the parents were engaged either in flying lessons or branch-hopping instruction to some number of new chicks.

Here is the amazing aspect of all this: I never, ever caught so much as a glimpse of those baby chicks after they left the nest – not even during the rustling commotions raging within our backyard shrubs that first evening of their apparent liberation. Mama and papa stayed close-by for three or four weeks afterward; I could see one or both keeping vigil on our yard – usually from the tip-top of the distant cypress tree, but I never saw the youngsters. How strange is that? I suppose I witnessed a demonstration of how mama and papa are programmed through instinct: To keep their young from view!

As I write this post some seven months later, the two adults are still coming around quite regularly. They clearly consider our back yard as their “homestead.” They were out there early this morning, so I gave them some crackers – of course! Papa jay makes it a point to stay out of mama jay’s way when the food comes out. I have often seen her aggressively chase him off until she has made her first pass. Sometimes, I’ll pull the sliding door open to step out, and one of them (followed closely by the other) comes gliding in for a landing, looking at me as if to say, “Where are our crackers?” It is great fun…especially when they hide the larger pieces of cracker for a rainy day. Where? They bury them in flower pots, in the lawn, and they even tuck their goods in the split seams of our bedraggled patio chair cushions – right in there with the cotton batting. It is fun to watch them identify a place for their stash: they will look around, decide on a good spot, go there, and finally take a long pause to look around to be sure no one is watching – like me! I have heard that birds have a phenomenal ability to recall great numbers of stash locations, places where they have hidden food for a rainy day. I often have trouble remembering where I laid my glasses ten minutes earlier.

I feel blessed with the opportunity to watch nature’s creatures so up-close-and personal, and I stand in awe of what I see – every time. Any human being with a “superior complex” relative to the animal kingdom ought to take a closer look.

We hope our two new friends will stay in their new neighborhood and add to the family, right here, next year!

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