Hey, Jay! Hey, Red!

This article was originally published in issue 22 of my print-only ‘zine Metanoia.

From my current living space, I don’t see a lot of birds, or at least I don’t see the number of birds that I used to see when I lived in (relatively) rural Vermont and could put up feeders, or take a walk in the woods by just stepping out the back door. This has led me to satisfy my birding interests virtually via Youtube, specifically on two channels: the first hosted by a Newfoundland woman named Lesley the Bird Nerd, who produces beautiful informational videos; and the second a live bird feeder cam hosted by a user named B.A. Birdwatcher; that cam livestreams from (ironically, since I grew up less than 30 miles from there, lived there briefly, and consider it one of my favorite places in the world) Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The videos on these two channels have both stoked and fed my interest. Lesley’s channel is mainly informational– four-to-ten-minute-long videos about the the birds she sees– and from it, I’ve not only been tipped off to behavior I might have missed otherwise; I’ve also had a few misconceptions shattered.

For instance, it’s the start of spring, and I’ve already overheard one conversation this year from someone who was excitedly reporting that they’d “seen their first robin.” Uhhh, sorry: as I learned from one of Lesley’s videos, robins are mostly non-migratory. They’re drawn to the suburbs, it’s believed, because the closely-trimmed lawns make it easier for them to find worms and other food, and in winter, those feeding spots being mostly unavailable, they retreat to the woods. They’re still local, in other words; they’re just off in the woods feeding instead of on our lawns.

Lesley’s favorite birds are blue jays, and she’s at least passed on her love of them to me. Watching her videos, I’ve learned more about jays than I have from any book or live observation. Both her videos and the live “feeder cam” have reminded me that I learn best through a combination of facts and observation. Some of the things she’s learned by watching blue jays for almost 30 years are:

  • Blue jays are monogamous. They don’t necessarily always “mate for life” (Lesley has observed some nasty blue jay breakups, with spurned former mates being driven away from their territory), but they do pair up, and several of the mated pairs she’s observed have been together five or more winters.
  • Blue jays eat paint chips. It doesn’t hurt them; this, Lesley says, is an apparently instinctive attempt to get calcium in their diet, which they naturally get from eggshells. It’s fascinating to me that a bird would know to eat calcium-laden paint chips to supplement its diet.
  • Blue jays, like most birds, have different calls and sounds and body language, all of them communicative of different messages. For example, jays do a bobbing movement accompanied by what she calls “the squeaky gate” call, which is a sign of dominance or aggression: this is my limb/ my tree/ my feeder/ my mate, so go away NOW. I’d never noticed this call before, but now when I hear it, I know I’ve heard it before, and it’s unmistakable.
  • Blue jays can mimic other birds, sometimes strategically. Lesley reports that several times, she’s heard what sounds like a sharp-shinned hawk calling from the trees above her feeder, which, of course, caused the smaller birds at the feeder to scatter for cover… all except the jays. (Insert hmmmmmm…here.) She scanned the trees with her binoculars, expecting to find a hawk, but instead found that the source of the call was…a blue jay. The jay had learned to mimic a sharp-shinned hawk’s call; the threat of an assumed nearby predatory bird sent the smaller birds flying away from the feeder, which meant that the blue jay and his jay friends now had the feeder all to themselves.

Learning these things about jays and other birds, I find I can sit for hours watching the “feeder cam,” and I notice all birds’ interactions in a new way.

Cardinals seem to dominate this feeder– maybe not surprising: it’s a tray feeder filled mostly with sunflower seeds, which cardinals love. While I can easily tell a male cardinal (bright red) from a female cardinal (duller brownish red), it’s impossible for me to distinguish between different males or females (even with 1080px streaming video, there’s only so much detail you can discern). However, the birds’ behavior tells me that there are, indeed, different cardinal groups and pairings. There are males who sit alone at the feeder, cracking open and eating sunflower seeds one at a time. (They’re not swallowing them and storing them in their crops for later, like some bigger birds do. I once watched a jay at this feeder pack 37 shelled peanuts and uncracked sunflower seeds into his crop before taking one last peanut in his beak and flying off!) At least one of these solitary cardinals chases off other males who attempt to come down and share the feeder. There are also (apparently) mated pairs who come down, and, again, when another cardinal tries to come in and partake, one of the perched birds chases the other cardinal off, sometimes before it can even land. There is also at least one pair of male cardinals who come in to feed together, sometimes with a lone female. Are these family or siblings from a previous year?

Watching these videos has not only rekindled my interest in birding, but has made me place “living in or near the woods, where I can observe birds in their natural habitats and also have a back yard bird feeder” at the top of my list of “criteria for next home.”

Metanoia is my biweekly print-only ‘zine, usually two, sometimes four, pages.

To receive the latest issue of it, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Max Shenk, PO Box 1184, White River Junction, VT 05001 OR order a copy/subscription online at my Selz store: https://maxshenkwrites.selz.com/

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