Jays have a bad rap. In some ways, deservedly so. Among various noises they make, they have a brain-rattling squawk that sounds like a high-speed collision between two metal garbage cans. They have a predilection for making this racket at the crack of dawn, and when a pair of jays began a daily, way-too-early morning ritual of blatherous squawking right outside our bedroom window, I was ready to channel my ten-year-old-BB-gun self.

“You don’t want to do that,” chided my significant other. “And you don’t own a gun, anyway.”

© Susan Leggett

“Maybe,” I mused as a barrage of glass-melting squawks pierced the dawn, “I could rent a ten-year-old with a BB gun. That would absolve us of direct implication in any bird murders and we’d be mostly guilt-free.”

That idea met with appropriate disapproval—sometimes a great notion simply doesn’t get out of the gate.

Besides obnoxious vocalizations, jays also have a reputation for being bullies, although this info comes anecdotally from a neighbor who recently sniffed, “They chase away my songbirds.” Where, I wondered, would her songbirds go? Do they flee to a sanctuary yard where jays are not allowed? And while we’re on the subject, does sanctuary airspace extend all the way from the ground to infinity?

Steller's jay; © Steve Byland

As it turns out, I’ve grown exceedingly fond of jays. Explanation to come. In the meantime, I’ll point out that jays belong to a diverse genetic amalgam with several different genuses (or plural “genera”—I looked it up) that are found all over the world. The classic blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata, is the most-common North American species. Our backyard varieties include the Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri, a dark-masked jay that sports one of those adorable punk rocker crests on top of its head. We also have the ubiquitous California scrub jay, Aphelocoma californica. (A word about the scrub jay here. Its name might imply that birds of this species have fallen on hard times. I can assure you, it’s a thriving and well-groomed member of society.)

Green jay; © Ondřej Prosický

One of the truly redeeming qualities of the jay is that it’s a handsome bird, and it’s pulchritudinous (thank you, spell check) qualities have given rise to a multitude of common names attributed to some facet of color. There are gray, green, brown, purplish-backed, azure, cayenne, white-napped, white-tailed, turquoise, violaceous (meaning violet, like you didn’t know that), black-throated, and the can’t-miss beautiful jay.

Sure, I’ve been captivated by our jays’ good looks. Bursting blue out of the trees, they are Nature’s sassy treats, bright and bold. But what I’ve really come to love about jays is that you can feed them peanuts.

Over the past year, novel at-home amusement has been hard to come by. Day-by-day routines become, well, routine. When my friend Dave (that's him in the video, above) demonstrated jay birds’ overwhelming fondness for peanuts, to the point that the birds could be fed by hand, I was all over that. Would our raucous, songbird-bullying jays actually be enticed to play catch with a peanut? Would there possibly be a backyard distraction from the slow drip-drip of pandemic life?

Answer: yes, oh yes.

So I bought an enormous bag of bird-friendly (no salt) peanuts and retired to the backyard with my plethora of peanuts and an iced bourbon. When a jay finally happened by and perched his/herself in a nearby branch, I tossed a peanut into the lawn a few feet away. The bird hunched, regarded me with birdy suspicion, decided I was way too slow and clumsy to pose any threat, then swooped down and took up the peanut in his/her beak. Birdy proudly waved it around for a few moments, then retreated to a nearby branch and where s/he began to hammer on the nut to crack it open. No sooner was the goober gobbled than s/he began to call for another. And another.

Scrub jay burying peanut. Ha! I know where the nuts are buried!

This form of live entertainment is pretty boundless. When sated, jays will take their bounty and go hide it, hammering it into the ground with whacks of the beak, then covering it with a leaf or twig to camouflage the location. They’re fairly relentless in their willingness to retrieve and either eat or bury peanuts, and will generously comply for as long as your arm or peanut stash holds out. Of course, unless you’d like to turn your yard into a peanut farm and your jays into tubby little farmstead overseers, staggering around, too fat to fly, little cigars in their mouths, pointing out various failures of your farm management, a little temperance is good all around.

Anyway, I suggest that if we must again hunker down again for variant reasons then we equip ourselves with ginormous bags of no-salt peanuts and retire to the back yard with iced beverages. There we are likely to find comfort, solace, and a noisy friend to keep our spirits flying.

U.S. postal stamp circa 1995; © Sergei Nezhinskii

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  • John R

It’s the scariest time of year. It’s late winter nudging into early spring. It’s too early for cleanup, and all trimming and pruning was completed the previous fall. That means our yard waste bin is sitting empty.

Scarier still: it’s Sunday. Thirty-six hours to go.

An empty yard waste bin means that when the yard waste truck comes around on its every-other-Tuesday circuit, we will not have anything for the truck to haul away. And that means our monthly yard-waste fee of $4.35 is basically going for naught. And a going-for-naught bin does not sit well with my better half.

So on Sunday, with a scant 36 hours to end the naught-iness of our yard waste bin, Deb stands forlornly at the back patio door, a pair of clippers in her hand. She’s absently squeezing the handles and the tool is making little squeaking noises, Eep eep! Eep eep! It’s all very Stephen Kingish.

She desperately wants to cut something down—anything will do—in order not to waste our monthly fee. And although I admire her consumer advocacy, I fear for our plants. She’s scanning for victims, something a little too bushy or limby. I often suggest that all plants be spared on account of anything that manages to survive in our yard is a very good thing and removing them will likely result in a barren patch of raw dirt or the appearance of some volunteer plant that will turn out to rank very high on the federal list of invasive species. When I make those requests, she invariably ripostes that I am hardly a font of gardening know-how.

“That one bush is really getting big,” she murmurs. Eep, eep.

“That’s a nice plant and it’s beginning to get little flowers on it.” No font indeed!

“What’s the name of it?”

Good question! “It’s a mock turquoise,” I quickly respond, knowing you can usually get people to believe your BS if you keep a straight face. Be aware, however, that spouses are equipped with excellent BS detectors.

“I don’t see any turquoise.”

“Berries. In the fall.”

“Hmmm. Well, what about that tree? Do we really need an entire tree?”

This usually goes on for a while until we inevitably resolve to surrender our unrequited $4.35 to the yard waste company, with vows to recoup the loss by overfilling the bin whenever we can. This mollifies Deb somewhat, and she decides to fetch some newly appeared jonquils to get the twitch out of her cutting hand.

Jonquils are good survivors and—fortunately for us—the plants will tolerate overcrowding and neglect and overzealous harvesting. They’re sort of jolly flowers, mouths wide open with goofy grins, and they’re especially good for bringing a little taste of early spring inside the house. So thanks, hon. And let me have those clippers—I’ll oil them up for you.

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  • John R

Flickers love to hammer on things. They have tough beaks and (apparently) remarkable cranial resiliency, and they will hammer away on things like there’s no tomorrow.

In this regard flickers absolutely adore human civilization. They love us because we build stuff, and in so doing present Colaptes all manner of resonant items on which to hammer: arbor posts, telephone poles, garbage cans, and a species favorite—metal chimney pipes.

Flickers typically beat on trees—tall, standing dead conifers are natural choices—at a rapid-fire 25 strikes per second. Trees are all fine and good, but flickerwise nothing can compare to the rich acoustics of a nice telephone pole.

Drumming is a requisite part of flickerness. The birds use drumming to attract mates and to defend nesting sites by warning away competitors—the biggest, baddest beat rules the hood. Flickers also have more normal bird-like vocals—staccato bursts of singsong yelps—but that’s like saying Picasso was also a decent bicycle mechanic. These birds are percussive virtuosos.

The flicker is in the woodpecker family. It’s a good-looking bird, bigger than a robin, with dappled plumage and, depending on the species, various ornamental dashes of color. There are butt-loads of flicker species and dozens of common names, including clape, gaffer, heigh-ho, wake-up, walk-up, wick-up, yarrup, gawker, and my personal favorite, harry-wicket.

A male Colaptes auratus mucking about in the dirt looking for insects. Photo by David Pederson.

Speaking of no tomorrow (refer to paragraph 1), I’m finally starting to feel better, as if there actually will be a tomorrow. The further that suckhole of 2020 recedes in the rearview mirror, the better. Sure, the craziness isn’t over yet. There’s still bad juju floating around in the air and we still have to do all sorts of annoying things like not sneezing on each other, but regardless I can now see a squidgeon of light at the end of the tunnel, the glass is turning from half empty to half full (even though some of that may be backwash), and I thankfully watch less televised news. I’m more inclined to—as Monty Python encouraged—look on the bright side of life.

Prime catalysts of this percolating optimism happens to be our neighborhood flickers. It’s like this: In the morning at this time of year, I’ll settle into a big old stuffed living room chair with a first-thing cup of coffee, still baggy-eyed and floppy jammied. A this point if I have any thoughts at all they’re almost certainly about coffee. I’ll guarantee I’m not thinking about harry-wickets.

But then, unexpectedly, I’ll hear it. The thrumming beat. It’s there and gone in a brief moment. I pause, Iistening, waiting, waiting. And there it is again, that bold, rapid-fire rapping: Finely feathered northern flicker seeks companion for fun and frolics. Another flicker answers from a distance: Hey, check the size of my metal chimney!

For me, something about that sound is transportive. To where, I’m not exactly sure, but somewhere pleasant and satisfying. It’s a remembrance of something familiar yet new. That burst of sound cracks open the doldrums of winter with its insistence of spring. Riding that sound I’m carried to a place where the daylight gets longer and the air warmer and the coffee is always thumbs-up good. It’s a new year and green stuff is starting to poke up through the mulch. What are those things, anyway? Who cares? No matter what they are, I have a feeling this might be the year of our Schiddiest garden ever!

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