I don’t know exactly when I started referring to the blue jays in our yard as my blue jays. When they first arrived at the little bird feeder we suction-cupped to our kitchen window—which was immediately after we filled it with sunflower seeds, as if they had been waiting for us to put up a feeder—I didn’t pay them much attention. They were common blue jays, after all. Big and chunky, loud and brash, they arrive making a racket, like a boisterous uncle who you wish you didn’t have to invite to your wedding, but he’s your uncle so what are you going to do?
It was early spring. Because of the pandemic, like many of you, I was home, and for the first time in 28 years I was free to go roaming in the mornings and look for birds. I studied the eBird daily bulletin, wrapped myself in sweaters, hung my binoculars around my neck, and set off each morning in the magical hour after the robins start singing but before the sun is fully over the horizon. Occasionally I would catch a flash of color on a tree branch, but it would quickly flitter out of sight. I would come home from my walks a little disappointed, annoyed by the scratch of the binocular strap against the back of my neck, feeling like I failed at the thing I had hoped would anchor me when the whole world felt groundless.
But at home there were the blue jays, clear as day, in my kitchen window. Starlings too. Black-capped chickadees and house sparrows, cardinals and titmice. Mourning doves, who walked up and down the driveway like window-shopping ladies bundled in gray coats. For several weeks a nuthatch visited, and we admired its formidable beak. I offered different kinds of food—granola-like mixes with dried fruits, a block of suet, raw peanuts still in the shell. I started to question why I was going out searching for birds when I had an armful of birds right here in my yard. What made one bird better than the other? I decided that the best way to become a better birder would be to study the creatures right in front of me.
It was when the fledglings began to test out their new wing feathers that I really took notice of the blue jays. It wasn’t the look of them—it was the sound. From across the apartment I would hear a loud thump from the direction of the kitchen, as if a stray playground ball had hit the window. I would run and check. Every time, a blue jay would be sitting in the feeder, trying to jam multiple peanuts into its beak. Hiding in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, I would watch the fledglings gracelessly propel themselves onto the feeder, occasionally landing on the top, scrambling to get purchase on the smooth plastic, unsure of how to get to the seed below.
There is a tall, spindly, half-dead old spruce tree on the edge of our driveway near the kitchen window, whose snapped-off branches make perfect perches for birds watching for a turn at the feeder. It was in this tree that I started to notice four juvenile blue jays, always together. Soon I was able to recognize each individual jay. There was the one whose eyes looked a little too big for her head. The one who had to pick up every single peanut in the tray before choosing. The one who always looked a little scruffy, as if in a constant state of molting, and the smooth one whose crest was a little larger than the rest. I watched them eat seeds and peck open peanuts they held between their feet. I listened to them call to one another—jay jay jay—when I replenished the nuts. I watched them take dainty sips of water from the bird bath, raising their beaks into the air to swallow. I watched them splash around in the plastic tub of cool water I left out on the hot afternoons of July, and then preen in the sun.
The more time I spent observing the jays, the deeper my curiosity about them grew, and I found myself spending my time away from the kitchen window reading articles about the birds. I learned that due to their love of acorns, blue jays are credited for spreading oak trees across New England. When they are relaxed, hanging out with flock and family, they lower their crests. That they recognize each other based on the variations of the black bridles that line their face and nape and throat. That they can mimic the sharp keening of a red-shouldered hawk with incredible accuracy.
I don’t think it’s possible to get to know a living thing without developing a feeling of kinship, of connection, to it, without starting to love it just a little. As I’ve spent time with the jays, my fondness for them has deepened. I look forward to seeing them at my window. My heart lifts at the sound of their calls. I stop and admire the stained-glass pattern of their white and blue tail feathers outlined in black. They make me laugh when they peer in the kitchen window.
I come to the natural world with a scientific brain and a soft heart. I try to keep to the scientific, because I’m interested in the how and why birds do what they do. It is for this reason I haven’t named the jays—they are wild birds, and I love them for their wildness. But that doesn’t stop me from saying Hello Blue every time I see one at the feeder. When I learned that blue jays are members of the crow family, and, like crows, can recognize individual faces, I began to talk to them whenever I was outside, dropping peanuts on the driveway or washing the bird bath, because when they spot me, I want them to think person with the peanuts, or, in other words, friend. I want them to recognize in their bird way that we are connected to each other, even if that connection is made via a legume. Because it’s the interconnectedness of all living things—the way flowers evolved to attract pollinating bees, the way trees send chemical messages to each other through the fungal network to warn of attacking insects—that fills me with hope, that makes me believe in something bigger, that keeps me looking to the natural world for awe and inspiration.
One evening in early August one of the jays—the one with the too-big eyes— was resting on the edge of the bird bath. It was a normal enough sight to see. It had been a hot day, and the bath was full of fresh water. Back in the kitchen about a half hour later I noticed it was still there. I grabbed my binoculars to take a closer look.
The blue jay was asleep!
My first feeling was one of pride—my yard was a peaceful oasis where a wild bird could take refuge and get some rest. That feeling lasted about five minutes, until the worry started to set in. The sun was setting. The bath wasn’t that high off the ground. The neighbor’s dog had recently attacked a skunk—would a dog chomp on a sleeping bird if it had the chance? And what about that scruffy cat I had seen the other day walking freely about the neighborhood? I jumped onto Twitter and posted a picture of the sleeping jay. I tagged a million birders I follow, and asked if they thought this was a normal thing for a young blue jay to do. I received a response from one of my favorite birders: Not normal, but young birds can make bad choices!
Thinking of all the poor choices I made as a juvenile, and no longer able to see out the kitchen window into the darkened yard, I decided it was time to intervene. I grabbed a flashlight and went outside with the intention of waking up my blue jay, but by the time I reached the bird bath, it was gone.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and at first light I went outside to make sure there was no trace of attack. Much to my relief, there wasn’t a single blue feather among the ivy that surrounds the bath. I filled the feeder with seeds and peanuts. By midmorning, all four blue jays were back in that scraggly spruce, waiting their turn. The blue jay with the too-big eyes, now busily eating black oil sunflower seeds in the window feeder, was fine, but I was a bit shaken. I had become deeply attached to these wild birds, whose very wildness—the thing that I love about them—meant that their lives were always at risk. Suddenly I was sick at the thought of losing them. It left me wondering: If attention leads to love, then what is the best way to love a wild thing? And if all living things are connected, what is my human role? How do I play my part?
The answer for me is stewardship. Offering what you can to the natural world—planting a pollinator garden or setting out water during dry days for bees to sip, allowing some leaf litter to remain in your yard to shelter small animals, maybe just leaving the seed-filled asters that have crept into your tidy flower beds to the finches—is an expression of interconnectedness, a spiritual practice, a way of giving thanks. A way of saying YES to wildness. A way of loving the world. Even a world full of risk.
Now it’s late autumn. My blue jays still come to the feeder every day, and I still feed them raw peanuts. Now that they have fully molted, it’s more difficult to tell them apart, although the scruffy one still looks a little like a plucked turkey, and the one that has to pick up every peanut still has to pick up every peanut before choosing. Their territory seems to have expanded—they stop by, but they don’t spend all day in our yard the way they did back in the summer. I don’t know if they will migrate or overwinter here. I don’t know if they will come back in the spring to build nests of their own. Now I hear blue jays on every corner, mine and yours, in every stand of trees on my morning walks, making a racket. I call up to them—Hello Blue! They call back— jay jay jay. Maybe they are warning each other about an approaching enemy. Or maybe they are saying hey, that’s the person with the peanuts. Friend. Either way, I will do what I can to make their lives a little better, returning the gift they have already given to me.
Louise Miller is the author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living and The Late Bloomer’s Club. You can find her at https://www.louisemiller.net. To read more of Louise’s nature writing, subscribe to her nature newsletter, Red Tails on the Fire Escape here: https://redtails.substack.com/about