How The Hen House Turns: Conversation With Jays

Conversation With Jays
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

One scrub jay we knew in Los Alamos would take peanuts from our hand, even from our visiting daughter’s hand, but only if we were at the porch railing. That’s where we usually put out the morning peanuts.

Years later another jay learned that we watched from inside the house while eating breakfast. He would position himself on the porch fencepost and fluff up his feathers, like a baby begging from a parent bird. Of course, we obeyed. Three times. We were delighted with the clear communication between species.

After the third peanut, we decided, this could go on all day. Scrub jays are known to cache thousands of peanuts in one winter. They find most of them, thanks to a special lump in their bird brains that remembers where they put them.

They also know that other jays and crows watch and steal newly planted peanuts. It was obvious (in their hesitation and long flights) that they didn’t like us watching them bury the peanuts and cover them with leaves.

To avoid handing out peanuts all day to our communicative jay, we “told” him, with a huge waving of our arms, that we were “all done.” We even said it. We had to be very stubborn. The fluffing went on and on. But in the end, Mr. Fluff, the jay, understood we meant it. After a few long sessions, he would fly off for the day and come back the next morning with less and less insistent begging.

Here in the hills of California’s Bay Area peninsula, we have similar conversations with two different jays. Sometimes, usually in the morning, they compete for our attention, but more often their sense of territory or dominance drives their behavior.

Often, not always, the dominant jay sits quietly in the Abelia bush, waiting for us to appear at 7:30 a.m. to put three peanuts beside the small rock we have set out for him. At first he would fly off, but I made a point of talking quietly to him as I approached and set down the peanuts. Now he waits in the bush, while we exchange quiet greetings.

Another jay soon learned about our backyard morning ritual. She wears a soft coat of light blue, will come to the live oak near the Abelia and squawk repeatedly–after the bright male with his dark necklace has left. Of course, we always answer her call, provide a peanut or two, and exchange niceties, until she flies off to hide her mouthful.

If she gets to the morning peanuts first, the dominant male comes back later, usually when he has spotted me in the sunroom painting or Don in his office at the computer. One loud squawk usually gets us moving, but on occasion he has settled on the large bird feeder tray outside Don’s window. He squawks loudly right at him.

One day, the jay decided one peanut was not enough. He came to the feeder and squawked loudly again at Don, who gave him the Mr. Fluff wide-arm “All done!” It worked. He flew off for the day. Of course, it may have helped that I had been very stubborn about giving out no more than one mid-day peanut when he saw me in the sunroom. He knew very well what the wide-arm noise meant.

The communication between us is clear. Trust is established, but the birds are still unquestionably wild. Unlike dogs, the birds could care less who we are, aside from our willingness to provide peanuts. The boundaries are well defined.