For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Jays, Part I

Original Air Date: July 22, 1991

What is 109º, thin-skinned, and has a neck like ET? 4:04 Date confirmed

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, I received the best surprise of the summer—baby Blue Jays. Their nest had been knocked out of a maple tree in Cloquet during a fierce thunderstorm. One died in the fall, but four were still alive. Mark Peterson’s dog found them. Mark couldn’t get the nest back in the tree, so he did the next best thing: he put them in a shallow box near the tree. The parents were frantic, but they just couldn’t figure out why their babies weren’t where they were supposed to be. Mark waited a coupe of hours but then, knowing the babies needed food before dark, fed them some dog food and brought them to me.

They were about ten days old, each big enough to nestle into my palm. They had quite a few body feathers, their wing feathers were about an inch long, and they had tiny stubs for tails. There was still lots of bare skin showing. The contour feathers of most birds don’t fro uniformly over the body—they grow out along feather tracts. There are bare patches of skin on adult birds, too, but when the feathers are aligned properly, they cover the bare places.

A baby Blue Jay held in a cupped hand is surprisingly hot. Its normal body temperature is somewhere around 109 degrees, and since the entire abdomen is unfeathered at first, the feeling on the hand is of pulsing hot skin.

Bird skin is amazingly thin—thinner than the flimsiest cellophane wrap. On a baby Blue Jay, this is especially conspicuous when it preens its shoulders. You can see right through the transparent skin to the muscles. It never ceases to amaze me that a clumsy baby just learning to preen never accidentally pierces that fragile layer of skin.

Beneath the feathers, a Blue Jay’s neck is also surprisingly skinny—not much thicker than a drinking straw. When it stretches its neck, you can clearly see the white rings of the trachea beneath the skin. The neck vertebrae of birds articulate differently than those of mammals. Blue Jays can stretch their necks out like we can pull out an antenna, or, even more accurately, the way Steven Spielberg’s ET stretched out his neck. My little daughter Katie noticed that.

The inside of a baby jay’s mouth is bright red. The intense color, easily visible 50 feet away when I’m not wearing my glasses, provides an excellent target for parent jays to aim food at. When baby jays are hungry, they make little mewing sounds, flutter their wings, and beg with their mouths wide open. Parents find this an irresistible display—it keys them up to spend all their waking hours searching for food just to stuff into those bright gaping mouths. Somehow, a hungry baby jay manages to communicate its desperation to mammals, too—at least, there are few people I know who can resist a begging baby jay.

Rooted to the bottom of that big mouth is the Blue Jay’s tongue. The upper surface is lance-shaped, and is anchored to the mouth by a tubular stalk. The tip of the tongue has three little barns. They look sharp, but they aren’t. Baby jays taste everything they see. First they touch that sensitive tongue tip to an object, and then, if it’s small enough, they take it into their mouth. If it feels soft and tastes good, they swallow it. But I’ve never known a fledgling or adult jay to take a second bite of an unfamiliar item until it’s taken at least ten minutes to digest it. This may be the way they protect themselves from poisoning. My little baby jays were only nestlings, and they were hungry, so they downed everything I offered them for a couple of days before they became more selective. Baby jays: they’re birds of discriminating tastes.