For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jay practical joke

Original Air Date: Nov. 12, 1998 (estimated date)

Laura thinks Blue Jays played a practical joke on people.

Duration: 3′42″


I drove down on Halloween to see the Green Violetear, and within minutes of arriving, there it was, along with a crowd of familiar and new birding faces. So much was I concentrating on that lovely bird that I didn’t pay much attention to two Blue Jays perched in a tree in the field behind the yard, though I did notice that one of them had a suspicious gleam in its eye. Something strange about the hummer’s wingbeats also caught my eye, but I was so tired from my long drive that it didn’t really register.

Then, driving home, I noticed a lot of Blue Jays in the gravel beside the highway. This isn’t very unusual, but I noticed that they seemed intent on license plates of cars whizzing past. At a rest stop, I asked one munching on an acorn what was going on. She wouldn’t tell me at first, but I bribed her with peanuts, and she settled once and for all the question about where this hummingbird came from and how exactly it ended up in La Crosse.

The whole sordid mess started on May 14, 1989, on a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology spring convention field trip to Rock County to look for Yellow-throated Warblers. La Crosse birder Fred Lesher led a hike to where the warblers had been sighted, and his keen ears picked up the song. Soon he was running toward the sound, the rest of us hot on his heels. We heard the song again, and suddenly noticed a movement high in a maple tree. Fred was first to realize this wasn’t the warbler. He said, “Nah—it’s just a Blue Jay,” and quickly found the genuine article.

Usually this would have been the end of it, but the Blue Jay’s feelings were hurt, and she decided to get even with Fred. She followed the car caravan back to the convention and peeked through a window into the WSO Bookstore where a copy of The Birds of Costa Rica was lying open at Plate 23. “Aha! Just the thing!” the Blue Jay thought. She followed Fred’s car back to La Crosse, and satisfied herself that this was where he roosted.

She planned her revenge very carefully, bringing several other jays into the plot. First they talked a couple of Green-winged Teals into saving molted wing feathers, but that took several molts since most years they forgot, being ducks rather than jays. The violet ear feathers were trickier since no birds in Wisconsin had anything close to that shade. But early this September, one of their friends migrating through Chicago happened to notice a pigeon perched on the Picasso statue that had uniquely brilliant violet neck feathers. Being from Chicago, this jay didn’t bother to wait for it to molt–he just mugged it and hightailed it up to Wisconsin. The jays stitched together all the feathers into a perfect Green Violetear costume. Then they found a naive young chickadee and told him a bunch of lies about Halloween and the Great Pumpkin, and through sheer ingenuity, and persuasiveness got him to wear the costume for a few days. He looked great when he first put it on except his bill was way too short, so one of the more resourceful of the flock grabbed two pine needles, dipped them in tar, and stuck them on. Voila! They had their hummingbird.

The rest, of course, is history. I’m counting a lifer, since this chickadee was clearly a new species—Parus atrickortreatillus. Of course, Blue Jays aren’t exactly famous for being truthful, so there is a possibility that some of this account isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it explains the presence of a Green Violetear in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as well as anything else I’ve read.