Have you heard a blue jay yet? You won't escape them. Raucous flocks are playing aerial leapfrog through the city's ailanthus trees, traveling the streets and alleys with all the quiet circumspection of a troop of howler monkeys roaring through the Amazon treetops. You can hear them two blocks away, screaming their hysterical jay, jay, jay.
Jays, like humans, seem to make noise simply because they like it, because a loud racket makes them feel better. Sometimes whole flocks gather in the treetops and just holler at each other for no apparent reason.
They can cry jay, jay, or ring a bell-like, two-note noise, or produce low, growling, or soft, lisping notes, or, according to some observers, deliver accurate renditions of the cry of the red-shouldered hawk and the song of the northern oriole.
Right now the flocks are small. They are mostly family groups of a pair of adults and their newly fledged young.
Gradually the family groups will amalgamate into huge flocks, ready for the flight south. For whatever reason, some jays migrate and some stay behind. So we have jays with us all year, but never do they make as much noise as now.
Jays arouse conflicting emotions in humans, the usual fate of animals that remind us of ourselves. They are very successful animals, and they succeed by combining boldness, resourcefulness, and intelligence with the ability to eat anything. These are the very qualities that made us what we are today.
Jays are also gorgeous, with their sky blue upper parts, crests, and black bibs. European ornithologists, coming from a land where jays are mostly brown, were blown away by this gaudy creature. John Lawson, writing in 1709, declared it "abundantly more beautiful . . . than those in Europe." Mark Catesby painted it around 1740 so the people in England could see the beauty themselves.
Ah, but the dark side. Audubon called them rogues and thieves. "Who could imagine," he wrote, "that a form so graceful, arrayed by Nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief--that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accomplishments of so much physical perfection." Similar sentiments have been expressed about humans.
The sin that stimulated Audubon's outburst was the eating of eggs, nestlings, and, occasionally, adults of various smaller birds. Jays do that. Audubon magazine ran a photo not long ago of a jay in the act of killing a nestling of some small bird. The evidence is that they don't do it very often, but to many 19th-century bird lovers, even once was too much.
As dwellers in a culture where calves are confined to airless boxes for the sake of a better grade of veal and where lobsters are boiled alive because they taste better that way, we would seem to have few grounds for complaining of the cruelty of another species's eating habits. The ornithologist Edward Forbush said of the jay's diet, "His right to thus comport himself is quite as clear as that of the little birds to eat flies or caterpillars."
Jays are also known to eat corn, a habit that farmers regard as even more reprehensible than eating baby warblers. Farmers used to shoot a whole lot of blue jays before the species gained legal protection.
Actually American farmers used to shoot a whole lot of everything. They were newcomers. They didn't know the habits of the strange animals they saw, and they often regarded every animal as a threat to them, to their livestock, or to their crops.
Around the turn of the century, scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture began collecting birds of various species and analyzing the contents of their crops and stomachs in order to find out for certain what they ate. The specimens were collected at all times of year and from places through the bird's range.
The study of blue jays was typical. Performed by a man named Foster Ellenborough Lascelles Beal, it was published in the U.S. Department of Agriculture yearbook for 1896. Professor Beal examined "292 stomachs collected in every month of the year from 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada."
Fourteen percent of the contents of all those stomachs was "mineral matter," sand and gravel, perhaps taken to help grind up seeds. Of the actual food, about 25 percent was animal matter and 75 percent was vegetable.
Most of the animal food was insects, but there were also a few spiders and snails, as well as small fish, salamanders, tree frogs, mice, and birds. However, only two stomachs contained the remains of birds and only three contained eggshells. It should be pointed out that eggs and nestlings are only available for a few weeks every year. If Professor Beal's 292-bird sample had been collected entirely during the month of June it might show a higher incidence of bird and egg eating.
Eighteen percent of the annual diet was corn, but other grains and domestic fruits were taken in small amounts. Wild nuts--acorns, beechnuts, and hazelnuts--were the most common vegetable food. Oak woods are always a good place to find blue jays, and in winter, large flocks often gather in areas where the beechnut crop has been especially big.
Professor Beal's final evaluation of the blue jay's economic status was suitably ambiguous. It did eat a lot of corn, although not as much as crows do, but it also ate noxious beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and weevils.
These ecological balance sheets make strange reading now. Of course, modern agriculture has made them all obsolete. Farmers use pesticides to kill insects; they don't need birds for the job, which is a good thing, since the lack of a food supply keeps out the insect-eating birds.
Clean farming, the practice of allowing nothing to grow on your land except crops, does a good job on the plant-eating birds, unless they can go without eating for several months while they wait for the corn to get ripe.
We are also less concerned with the need to justify a species existence economically, although you can still hear people say that we need to preserve species because someday we may find a wonder drug in a rare frog. The contemporary idea is that we conserve species by conserving ecosystems; that the justification for any species existence lies within the ecosystem and not in our tastes or desires.
Blue jays migrate south along the lakefront, sometimes in enormous numbers. As many as 10,000 have been recorded passing a single point in Berrien County, Michigan, in late September. Berrien County is directly opposite Chicago on the eastern shore of the lake.
They are easy to recognize in flight. They are big birds, second only to crows as the largest of our song birds. They have long tails and short, rounded wings that they move in short, quick flaps. They fly very slowly, 20 miles an hour or less, so you should have a long time to look at any passing through.
The birds that remain behind after the migrants leave are quieter, but they still make a fair amount of noise and their bright blue backs are a welcome sight amid the gray and brown of a winter woods. If you have a bird feeder, you have a fair chance of getting jays to come to it. Sometimes they come more often than you would like. They are big birds with big appetites, and they may also chase away any would-be competitors for the bird seed.
If you want to test your ability to slip through the woods as silently as an Iroquois, try sneaking past a flock of blue jays in a winter woods. You won't make it. They will see you and start screaming. Many other animals--from porcupines to chickadees--react to that scream and search the surroundings for whatever menace the jays have found.
Flocks of jays can also help you find hawks and owls. If a jay finds one, it starts hollering a special, high-pitched mobbing call. Every jay in earshot comes flying and they all perch around the raptor and holler at him.
Sometimes the action escalates. The jays, one at a time, fly short--and often very risky--sallies at the raptor, eventually driving it from its perch. They then chase it out of the neighborhood.
Some ornithologists have been skeptical about whether this mob action actually interferes with the raptor's ability to hunt. But it is certain that you can't sneak up on anything while you are surrounded by a screaming flock of blue jays, and if they run you out of the neighborhood, the local creatures are at least safe until you fly back.
I offer these stories of community service as guard and protector as a counter to Audubon's blast against the blue jay's character. Even rogues and thieves aren't all bad.