For the Birds Radio Program: Happy Birthday, Sneakers!

Original Air Date: July 5, 1995

Today is the birthday of Sneakers the Blue Jay. 4:03

Audio missing


On July 5, 1991, exactly four years ago today, a little Blue Jay came to my house to stay. Sneakers was supposed to turn into a wild Blue Jay, like her brothers and sisters, but for some reason she decided she preferred hanging out with people. As a rehabilitator, I see her as one of my biggest failures. As a rehabber, I had a legal responsibility to euthanize her or bring her to a zoo when it became obvious that she wasn’t suitable for release, but fortunately I’m also a public speaker and educator, which qualified me to get a special license to keep Sneakers as a licensed education bird.

Now she accompanies me to school programs, book signings, elderhostels, and anywhere else I go to talk about birds. She makes a great educational tool–last week when I taught a bird class for girls at the College of St. Scholastica, she came along and played with the girls’ hair, and whistled and talked as we watched slides. We had to keep her in the cage when we dissected owl pellets and a whole bird–she’d have been carrying off parts and hiding them in places the janitors would never have expected if we’d left her loose. But overall she spent most of the time flying around our classroom and teaching the girls more about Blue Jays and their jolly ways than the most educational video or computer program could ever do.

Sneakers is much more than a valuable tool–she’s a darned nice bird. She gets to fly loose in my office when my puppy Betsy isn’t around. One day when I left her unattended in my room, she discovered where I keep the meal worm bucket. I presume her first act was to pig out, but by the time I came back in she was carrying mealworms to her buddy BJ, a hurt Blue Jay stuck for now in a cage. Blue Jays are rather generous by nature, and thoughtful of the needs of their friends. Of course, Sneakers is a sensible bird, and after she and BJ had eaten their fills, she started hiding mealworms in her cage so she could continue the feast after I locked her up again. She was so funny that I let her hide twenty or thirty before I finally took away the bucket.

Sneakers likes our main dog Bunter–a twelve-year old Golden Retriever that is gentle and sweet. But she hates our emergency auxiliary back up dog, Betsy–a year old Springer Spaniel who last year killed a nighthawk right in front of her. Betsy presumably knows better now, but Sneakers will never like her or trust her. It’s just as well–Betsy leaves nighthawks alone now, but Sneakers teases her mercilessly, whistling like me to call Betsy in and then squawking as if laughing that she tricked her. In a match between a three ounce Blue Jay and a thirty-five pound dog, Sneakers would by far have the intellectual advantage, but I suspect Betsy would have the last laugh.

Sneakers has a charming whistle, and enjoys surprising people in shopping malls. Bookstore owners love her–when people pass us by without noticing my book, she whistles to get their attention, and sometimes their business. Her finest trick of all is speaking. For three years now she has been able to say “hi” and “c’mon,” and twice she’s even said “Sneakers.” But her talking was strictly a private affair for most of that time–it wasn’t until this year, in a first grade class in Duluth, that she made her public speaking debut. She does most of her talking to little children, and I can’t get her to say much of anything to strange grown-ups. Sneakers is a lot like Huck Finn, and the adult world makes her pretty nervous. Even as she reaches the ripe old age of four, I don’t think I have to worry about her ever really growing up.