For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jay Summer

Original Air Date: July 29, 1991

What’s more fun than a house full of Blue Jays? 4:05 (date verified)

Audio missing


The only thing more fun than raising baby Blue Jays is raising children and baby Blue Jays. Watching all my fledglings at play together makes for one jolly summer.

Katie, who’s 7, taught Jake to ring a bell. She also put together a set of shiny buttons for the jays to play with. There are gold and silver ones from old jackets, and shirt buttons of all sizes, but the jays seem to prefer the 20-year-old blue buttons left over from sewing my wedding dress. They line them up on the dining room window sill and then carry off a few hidden in their throat pouches to hide behind the stereo speakers. The kids giggle like crazy when they find a button wedged in a chair or hidden in a Lego boat. THey’ll probably find the game less charming once the jays start hiding their legos and Game Boy cartridges.

The jays spend most of the day flying free in the backyard. They aren’t secure enough yet to go out of hearing range—any time we call, they zip into the box elder tree and call down to us. And when the kids are outside, the jays sit in whichever tree is closest to the action. But they’re more like cats than dogs, in that they come to our hands only when they darn well feel like it. They are getting better at coming when they’re hungry rather than expecting me to fly up to them.

Last week the neighborhood family of jays spent a half hour in the yard. Jake and Sneakers were indoors, and they studied the family from the dining room window. The wild babies, who are just a little older than my guys, hopped on toys in the sandbox and plucked at maple seeds. When they finally got hungry and started begging for food from their parents, I was interested in seeing how my babies would react. They, too, started to beg, but hopped over to me. They understand that the adult Blue Jays outside belong to those babies, and I belong to them. They were outside later that day when the wild family came back. I could tell my babies from the wild babies by their voices, and the wild parents apparently did the same. Jake and Sneaks checked out the other babies a little, but didn’t follow them when they left the yard, hurrying to me instead.

Our golden retriever Bunter really enjoys the jays, which is a mixed blessing. They hop on her back and preen her fur, and once Jake fell asleep nestled against her. It makes it easy to live in one house together, but on the other hand, these birds may end up trusting dogs too much when they’re off on their own. Fortunately, they do seem to recognize individual people, and won’t come to anyone except me and my kids. I suspect that they won’t trust other dogs, either.

They obviously don’t recognize individual people by our plumage, since they come to me no matter what clothes I’m wearing and don’t seem to care when I’m wearing eyeglasses or a towel on my hair. I think that just as I recognize them by their voices, they recognize me by mine. They’re curious about the many differences between people and jays. They watch our eyes—their lids close from the bottom up, so they find ours intriguing. They preen our hair, especially 5-year-old Tommy’s, and seem concerned that the barbs don’t zip together like feathers are supposed to. They’re fascinated by teeth and keep trying to snatch them. They must think we’re carrying exotic white stones or seeds in our mouths.

One of the favorite times of day for children and jays in our house is story time. In mid-afternoon, instead of naps, I read to my kids. Since the jays came, we’ve read Old Yeller; Rascal, about a boy raising a raccoon, and now a biography of George Washington. The jays may be anywhere when I start to read, but as soon as they hear me, they fly into the living room and perch on somebody’s lap or sneakers or head. At first they fluff their feathers and preen, and then they quiet down and rest, studying the faces of their human family and learning to enjoy our strange ways.