For the Birds Radio Program: Sneakers's First Word
Is it really possible for a Blue Jay to learn to talk? (Date verified)
Last week, I was overwhelmed with bird work. Esmerelda the hummingbird spends her days in an open shoebox in a sunny window sill, with a hummingbird feeder always available. I fortify her sugar water with vitamins, but she also needs protein, which she gets from insects when we take our outside every couple of hours to visit the choicest flowers in our neighborhood.
It’s fun taking a hummingbird for a walk, but it’s also time consuming. Patty Cake the baby crow needs feeding three or four times an hour most of the day, plus I have to give her physical therapy a couple of times a day to straighten out her foot, which is deformed from a serious case of rickets. She also needs extra vitamins every day to help her bone development. And poor Ginger, the nighthawk who was hit by a car! Her eye became necrotic, and her cornea literally popped out. Then she developed septicemia. For six straight days I was up most of the day and night with her until she started responding to an antibiotic Pat Redig from the Raptor Center recommended. My own veterinarian has been incredibly generous with his time and expertise, and now much of the time Ginger’s feeling perkier and seems to be mending. I have to inject her antibiotic twice a day for a few more days. When any nighthawk can’t fly around catching insects on the wing, it requires hand feeding, and Ginger’s injury was so awful that she hasn’t thought out our feeding system yet, so I have to gently open her mouth and place the food inside ten or twelve times a day. All in all, I’m not getting much else done. Which means poor Sneakers the Blue Jay is sorely missing the attention she usually gets.
During the worst crisis for Giner, I didn’t take Sneaks out of her cage for a full week. We have a game where Sneakers whistles and I answer, but Saturday I was working so hard with Ginger that even though Sneakers was whistling her hardest, and even though she knew darned well that I was right there in the next room, she couldn’t get me to answer. Finally, in what I presume was absolute desperation, she suddenly called out, clear as a bell, “Hi!”
Her cage is next to the front door, so I naturally assumed there was someone at the door. When I passed by her cage, Sneaks let out another “Hi!”, ever so friendly and clear. I was so excited I ran into the kitchen and rewarded her with her favorite orange sherbet, and said “Hi!” over and over like a crazy woman, but since she was now getting plenty of attention, she didn’t need to repeat the trick.
There are actually at least a few other records of captive-reared Blue Jays learning to talk—they are, after all, close relatives of crows, ravens, and magpies, and their vocal apparatus are pretty much identical. Frank Capra frequently employed a crow named Jimmy the Raven as a supporting actor in his films, though Jimmy usually had non-speaking roles. Although parrots are the most famous bird talkers, mynas and their relatives, including the ubiquitous European Starling, can mimic all kinds of sounds, including chain saws, other bird songs, and human speech. Sonagram studies indicate that myna imitations are virtually indistinguishable from human speech. But even starlings can be taught a huge vocabulary, and their many other imitations make them worthy relatives of their more famous cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that mimicked his music, much to Mozart’s delight. When the starling died, Mozart wrote an impassioned poem in the bird’s memory.
Somehow, Sneakers the Blue Jay’s two little “Hi!”s pale in comparison with these more famous talkers. But even if Sneakers never says another word, those two plaintive words were plenty good enough for me.