Birds and the Rhythms of Life; A Sad Story Unfolding, Here

Birds…they are everywhere and rather easy to take for granted. I have developed a deep respect for our fine, feathered friends during my years of retirement. My wife and I have even “bonded” with a pair of jays over the past year – more on that in a moment. Given enough time to regularly observe their comings and goings, one cannot but be amazed at birds – their variety and their abilities. Three species have been of particular interest to me over the years: Crows, hummingbirds, and western scrub jays.

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Thirty years ago, we had few crows and hummers around here. The newly-plowed and paved orchard land on which new residential neighborhoods sprouted offered little mature vegetation back then. Today, there are waves of crows and minions of hummingbirds, here in Silicon Valley, California, but rarely do we see blue jays. It was particularly fascinating to watch a male and female western scrub jay move-in and nest in our backyard about a year ago. Their nest was in a large shrub just a few feet from our house, thus allowing us to closely observe their activities from our back windows. I came to know these two birds and their habits very well (see my post of Dec. 8, 2013, Meet Our New Neighbors, the (Scrub) Jays, in the December archives). They have been regular visitors to our patio over the past year.

Alas, I fear something has gone terribly wrong. After not seeing the jays over a rainy period of several days, the female showed up this past Wednesday evening, around dusk. As so often happens when I slide open the patio door and they are in the immediate vicinity of our backyard, she came swooping over the patio and landed on the back rail of an outdoor patio chair. I always reach inside for some soda cracker bits, which they both love, and I sprinkle them on the patio as I am being closely observed, just feet away. But this time, several things were different: The female completely ignored the crackers; it was dusk instead of early morning; and she overshot her landing on the chair, almost going into the nearby bush. That was very different. She has always been impeccable in all of her movements, both in-flight and on the ground. She soon perched in our little potted Japanese maple tree, just a few feet above the patio, quietly sitting there as darkness fell – for a long time, like a fluffed-up ball of down.

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During all this time, I never saw the male – extremely unusual. Invariably, when she swoops in as if to say, “Where are our crackers?” the male shows himself after a few minutes to pick up the crumbs. I learned early-on that scrub jays mate for life, and I also observed that Mrs. Jay literally ruled the roost. She would aggressively chase her mate away from the crackers until she had her fill and buried numerous larger pieces in various flower pots, planters, and even in the middle of the lawn. Only then would she allow him to pick up the remnants. For two individuals so close to one another, members of a bird species that mates for life, I found that aggressive behavior quite surprising. The stashing of food for a “rainy day” is fascinating behavior as well. I once read of a research study on chickadees which revealed that they can accurately recall hundreds of different “stash” locations, well after the deed! Amazing! It has always surprised me that they can unerringly find our backyard after flying all about the region. There must be nothing sadder in the animal world than a bird which develops short-term memory problems.

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Sad to say, I believe my little friend has lost her mate. Watching her body language last night and again this morning, it is so obvious that she is….well, either ill or depressed. I am not so much of a touchy/feely person when it comes to nature and natural processes, but it is remarkable to observe the change in her persona and behavior since we last saw her several days ago. Since we have not yet seen her mate, her body-language suggests the likelihood that her life-partner is gone; there are no other jays around here, so she is truly one of a kind, now. Her unusual behavior surely must reflect whatever feelings birds can have, especially when they mate for life. Her behavior continues this Thursday morning: Listless, and taking the sun while sitting on the patio amidst the flower pots or sitting on the lawn; never saw her do that before! Still, there is no sign of the male. We have noticed a couple of cats in the neighborhood lately. I hope that is not the reason for her mate’s disappearance. Thinking dark thoughts, one would wonder if she saw something in that regard and is now saying, “Here I am, come and get me, too!” I hope not.

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The Crows and Hummers

I first got interested in bird behavior a number of years ago due to my habit of celebrating the dawn and the dusk of most days with a cup of coffee, tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. I think best when standing on the stoop of our back patio door watching the sun rise and set each day. Many of these blog posts materialize as I reflect in that fashion. Years ago, it became apparent to me during my dawn/dusk reveries that, especially in the winter months, waves of crows would fly low over our house at both dawn and at dusk. They come from some nesting site miles away to the apricot orchard nearby where flocks of them spend the entire day hunting for food. They can be seen all over the orchard, in the trees and stalking the earth below, until dusk when the “sentinels” gather the brothers and sisters in circling flight  and off they go in one or two large waves back to their “home.” It is an endless rhythm, much like the rising and setting of the sun which is, after all, their time-keeper.

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Crows are said to be among the smartest of birds. They are clearly very social as well. We have, more than once, investigated loud raucous commotions in the neighborhood coming from a flock of circling crows only to find a dead crow in the street. I have seen, on several occasions, a raucous flight of crows “dogging” the tail of a hawk or falcon which has dared to enter their territory – probably looking for the young. Those crows are persistent in their harassing chase to the point where one is soon feeling sorry for the pestered bird-of-prey. They do work together!

We have all seen crows out in the middle of the street pecking at some road-kill while cars whiz by just a few feet away. If necessary, they will step aside a calculated bit, but only enough to avoid becoming road-kill themselves (surprisingly rare, and a testament to their judgment). They are an interesting bird.

And what can one say about hummingbirds? I say, “Unbelievably amazing!” There is no species in the animal world so “incredible,” pound-for-pound, than are the hummers. Someone far more knowledgeable than I about the animal kingdom might even drop the weight qualification in that statement! I’ll go along with that. So quick, so precise, and so tiny: They are wonderful…and so imbued with confident curiosity that they will fly right up to me and hover for a long time two feet from my face while looking me over. Currently, they are consuming the sugar-water in our feeder, which hangs just outside our patio window, like it is going out of style. It must be mating/nesting season already, for I see several females of the “Anna’s” species around now – always under feeder-control of the one or two dominant males in our backyard territory. I call them the “Boss-Birds,” although there is often but one supremely territorial male who patrols the backyard and chases everyone else off the feeder. For more of my thoughts on hummers, see one of my very first blog posts, that of March 3, 2013, Be Aware, Amazed, and Smell the Roses, in the March blog archive.

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I’ve observed hummers close-up-and-personal, now, for many years. The above picture of the current “Boss-Bird” topping-off his tank, as usual, just before disappearing for several hours into the blackness of approaching night was taken standing just a few feet away. Every now and then, I see something remarkable and unusual, but for the most part, these little creatures live their lives in a continuously repeating pattern dictated by the rhythms of the day, the seasons, and their biological clock. It is all so wonderful.

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