How The Hen House Turns: Whistles Work

How The Hen House Turns
Formerly of Los Alamos
There is an ongoing disagreement about birdfeeders—a balancing act between the joy that people have in watching the birds, and the birds’ need to know how to find wild food.
We have enjoyed the company of Los Alamos’s scrub jays over the years. One took peanuts from our hands, one fluffed on the porch rail when he saw us eating breakfast, one made it quite clear that he wanted his peanut on the porch rail, nowhere else.
This spring, when the squirrels took over our bird feeder, emptying it at every sitting, we decided to take the Audubon Society’s suggestion (at least for California) to leave the feeder empty, at least most of the time. As a result, we lost our two scrub jay friends who had been coming in for unsalted peanuts every morning. So did the squirrels.
About a week ago, a young jay came by. I whistled three times (a high tone through my front teeth) and I held out a peanut for him to see. He scrambled higher in the oak tree, but he must have seen me toss the peanut behind the usual rock. In any case, he came into our small yard, grabbed it, and flew swiftly down the lawn. The next morning I whistled and put two peanuts beside the rock, but no bird came until much later. The routine continued a few more days. The peanuts disappeared when I wasn’t looking, though I had given three whistles with each offering.
Then a new pattern started. The jay arrived at the lovely bush behind the peanut rock and called continuously (more like a squawk than a whistle) until I appeared with a peanut. The jay was very shy, but after I went back into the sunroom he quickly dodged in to take his treat, then flew away giving a squawk of thanks.
At 11:30 a.m. the next morning, we heard a jay whistle. We answered with our three high teeth tones and put out a peanut, which he took quickly, as usual. He came back again three times after that with more demanding squawks, and we hurried to provide the required peanuts, hoping to make a new friend. All that activity attracted the attention of a second jay—one who behaved like our first jay friends from last year. He must have been passing by and recognized what was going on, for he dove for the last peanut while I was still outside.
Now the shy jay comes in alone, gives one squawk if he sees me in the sunroom (where I do acrylic painting most mornings), and I toss him a peanut. He still refuses to come close, and he waits until I am safely inside, but at least he beats the squirrels to the peanuts. They, too, understand what our three whistles mean. I guess the bird feeding now will be by demand, their demand.