For the Birds Radio Program: Blue Jays

Original Air Date: Sept. 30, 1987

Laura talks about Mark Twain’s favorite bird.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Although few people ever notice it, one of the most spectacular sights in the Northland every fall is the migration of the Blue Jay. Some days a continuous stream flies along the Lake Superior shoreline and Hawk Ridge. Blue Jays have a distinctive flight–their wide, rounded wings steadily beat at or below body level like a woodpecker–except that Blue Jays don’t undulate the way woodpeckers do. Blue Jay flocks usually fly several hundred yards and then land in a stand of trees for a few moments before taking off again. They are absolutely silent in flight and when they land, unless a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops down on the flock. Most of the flocks zip right through as if on an invisible aerial expressway, but many of the flocks do take advantage of feeders and other avian tourist traps, often vacationing in a neighborhood for a week or so before heading on. A few will put up stakes here for the winter–but they’ll head further north in the spring. Some of the Blue Jays that summered here are long gone–and some here now are from the northern Great Plains and Canada.

It always surprises me to hear someone complain about jays, as if they were anything less than the perfect species of bird they are. Mark Twain knew the value of a Blue Jay. He wrote:

There’s more to a blue-jay than any other creature. He has got more moods and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a blue-jay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book- talk–and bristling with metaphor, too–just bristling! And as for commmand of language–why, you never see a blue-jay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: I’ve noticed a good deal, and there’s no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a blue-jay. You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does–but you let a cat get excited, once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you’ll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use. Now I’ve never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.

You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure–because he’s got feathers on him, and don’t belong to no church, perhaps, but otherwise he is just as much a human as you be. And I’ll tell you for why. A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests cover the whole ground. A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and, four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. Now, on top of all this, there’s another thing: a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a blue-jay a subject that calls for his reserve powers, and where is your cat? Don’t talk to me–I know too much about this thing. And there’s yet another thing: in the one little particular of scolding–just good, clean, out-and-out scolding–a blue-jay can lay over anything, human or divine. Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do–maybe better. If a jay ain’t human, he better take in his sign, that’s all.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

That was Mark Twain, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”