For the Birds Radio Program: Sneakers's sticks

Original Air Date: March 4, 1994

When Sneakers the Blue Jay takes on a task, she does a thorough job of it. 3:58

Audio missing


Every couple of months I have to find a new stick for Sneakers the Blue Jay. Her cage came with a thick dowel, but it’s too smooth and round for foot comfort. So I give her a natural branch of whatever kind of wood happens to be handy.

A new branch in a cage represents a major responsibility for a little Blue Jay. She can’t rest until she has completely debarked it. At first she cocks her head, studying the wood, calculating angles and wood type and whether she should use her beak as a chisel or an ax. Then she sets in with a dedication and industry that human laborers, with our 8-hour work days and lunch and coffee breaks, would never consider. On normal days, Sneakers spends much of her time whistling to anyone who will whistle back, but when she has a new branch, she gets so busy studying it and hacking and probing and flaking that she forgets all about whistling. She does snatch a walnut when I offer it to her, but more often than not, by the time she’s taken a small bite or two, a slight irregularity in the wood grain catches her eye, and back she goes to work, stopping to rest only when the lights go out at bedtime. In the morning, she’s hard at work when I first come in to say good morning.

It takes several days for even the most dedicated Blue Jay to debark a three-foot branch. But eventually every trace of bark is finally off, and she’s ready to start the real job. She studies both ends of the branch, how exactly they’re wedged into the cage bars, where every knot and irregularity in the wood is, and finally, using criteria I can’t even guess at, selects one side to whittle down.

Now whittling, whether done by humans or Blue Jays, is a deliberate kind of work, never to be hurried, best done during leisure time, and that’s how Sneakers views it. Gone is the frenzied pace, the compulsive urgency of debarking as she sets to whittling with a calm steadfastness. Some days I don’t even notice her at it, but little by little, one end of the branch grows smaller. It starts out wedged in tight between the bars, over an inch in diameter, so it takes weeks to loosen it, but eventually it wobbles like a seven-year-old’s front tooth. If it’s a long branch, I can shift its position and wedge it securely again, but eventually, with a triumphant Blue Jay shout, she breaks it clean in two. With a whir of feathers, it collapses with her still perched on it. Of course, now there’s nowhere for her to sit, which she always finds a surprising turn of events, so she puts on her indignant air until I go out and find her a new stick. This time I look for one with very hard wood.

The new stick sets her to debarking, and then whittling, and eventually to squawking for another stick, giving our life together a rhythm that is somehow satisfying and meaningful. Sneakers’s steady chipping away at that stick, like a woodpecker chipping away at the frozen fabric of winter itself, has a rhythm and a reason. It’s these little patterns in our lives that comfort us and somehow assure us that even in the slowest of winters, when Lake Superior itself is encased in thick ice, spring will most assuredly break through in the end, beginning a new pattern once again.