A Few Words from the Peanut Gallery
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.”
“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?
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.)
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.
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.