For the Birds Radio Program: Mark Twain's "Baker's Blue Jay Yarn"

Original Air Date: Dec. 3, 2009 Rerun Dates: Dec. 17, 2021; Nov. 14, 2016

Laura reads from her favorite story by Mark Twain, from A Tramp Abroad.

Duration: 4′56″


Mark Twain wrote many wonderful yarns, including one of the greatest works of fiction to come out of the 19th century. But my favorite of his stories is Baker’s Blue Jay Yarn, part of his book, “A Tramp Abroad.” In honor of National Blue Jay Awareness Month, here is an excerpt.

Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that; but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them. I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself. He was a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California, among the woods and mountains, a good many years, and had studied the ways of his only neighbors, the beasts and the birds, until he believed he could accurately translate any remark which they made. This was Jim Baker. According to Jim Baker, some animals have only a limited education, and some use only simple words, and scarcely ever a comparison or a flowery figure; whereas, certain other animals have a large vocabulary, a fine command of language and a ready and fluent delivery; consequently these latter talk a great deal; they like it; they are so conscious of their talent, and they enjoy “showing off.” Baker said, that after long and careful observation, he had come to the conclusion that the bluejays were the best talkers he had found among birds and beasts. Said he:

“Theres more TO a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay 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 command of language--why YOU never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And another thing: Ive noticed a good deal, and theres no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay. 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 youll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think its the NOISE which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it aint so; its the sickening grammar they use. Now Ive 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– hes got feathers on him, and dont belong to no church, perhaps; but otherwise he is just as much human as you be. And Ill tell you for why. A jays gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests, cover the whole ground. A jay hasnt 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. The sacredness of an obligation is such a thing which you cant cram into no bluejays head. Now, on top of all this, theres 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 bluejay 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; in the one little particular of scolding–just good, clean, out-and-out scolding– a bluejay 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 aint human, he better take in his sign, thats all.