I like birds. This is something I don’t usually talk about, mostly because I think I’m probably nerdy enough already. Without the birds. On a good day, if you were to rate me on a nerdiness scale from one-to-ten (one being completely normal and ten being certifiable) I’d probably sit comfortably somewhere around a 4.5. Sure, you say, being a little geeky is good, keeps things interesting, right? But I’ll add a huge but in there: if I admit my little secret, that 4.5 shoots right up to a high 8. My secret is this: I have trained my neighbourhood blue jays. Or maybe, just maybe they’ve trained me (the jury is still out on this). See, you’re already thinking, high 8; definitely high 8. I know, right? The only thing that stops me from hitting that 9 is the fact I don’t own a pair of birdwatching binoculars (yet), I haven’t joined any of those ornithological clubs (only because of age requirements, not because I so wouldn’t want to), and I haven’t given the blue jays cute little names (other than Spike, but it’s only one bird so technically that doesn’t count…)
I wasn’t always a bird fan. I blame the chickens, really, because before I had them, I didn’t really give birds a second thought. I had a bird feeder, like most people with outdoor space do, but it wasn’t a thing. Until I started watching the birds at my feeder. I’d watch them as I drank my coffee, in that sort of pre-awake, eyes half-open stupor, as they flit back and forth to the feeder. And one day it hit me: here was this perfectly orchestrated hierarchy of birds, playing out their lives, right in front of me. I got hooked. It became this anthropomorphized soap opera view of the real world where males always get first dibs, and the larger always bully the smaller and weaker ones. A world where you root for the little guy and feel that surge of pride when he stands his ground and gets his reward. A world where there are moments of peace on earth-like symbiosis (usually those wickedly cold days) and almost every bird gets along, just for a moment, and bravely perch side by side, puffed up, and frosty-breathed, while they chomp away at sunflower seeds. I don’t know, I just found it all incredibly interesting.
I know I’m not alone. So, if you want to join my secret club of bird aficionados, you totally can. We don’t hold meetings, we don’t know each other’s names, and if we see each other in public, we never, ever make eye contact. It’s the only way the club works.
Here’s how I trained my backyard blue jays:
Let me just begin by saying my intention was never to train birds (or be trained by them…), I only wanted to have some feeders so I could watch them from the comfort of my kitchen window as I drank my morning coffee. I swear!
Have a feeder
I started off with a bird feeder. Sounds easy enough. It was a platform feeder, for larger birds. I put whole peanuts on it and waited. The feeder was about 6 feet from my back door. I watched and waited for some blue jays. I don’t know how they know, if they have some sort of peanut radar, but they came. The problem was, that squirrels also must have peanut radar, because they showed up to the party, too. Don’t get me wrong, squirrels are cute. Outside. Squirrels are not cute, burrowing into your attic. So, to appease my husband, and the board of health, I took down my bird feeder so the squirrels didn’t take it as an invitation to move in.
I was sad because the feeder was gone and that meant no more blue jays. Or so I thought. They still came back. Every day for almost a week. Squawking and carrying on in my yard, swooping down to where the feeder was. I felt so guilty thinking of all the hungry blue jays, that out of desperation, I went out and put a few peanuts on the railing of my fence deck. I didn’t think much of it, until I looked out the window a few minutes later, and there was a blue jay, popping a peanut in his beak and taking off. And that, was the beginning of my training…
Leave treats when you hear the birds call
The next day, I waited until I heard the squawking, then went out and placed the peanuts. And the next day after that. And the next day after that. I did this for a few weeks, until my husband saw me do it and laughed hysterically at me and threatened to post it on Facebook. I actually felt pretty embarrassed over the whole thing, and thought, seriously if anyone knew… (#birdproblems). But I sucked him in to my crazy bird world. He can try to deny it all he wants, but I saw him. One morning when I slept in, I found him and my daughter in the backyard, neatly lining up peanuts on the railing for the birds…
All winter the jays came and all winter our family enjoyed their antics. We actually got to know the troop. There were three who came on a daily basis and two who occasionally joined in. Blue jays have a very established hierarchy and communicate with one another. They also have an uncanny sense of which peanuts are good and which one aren’t. See all those oak trees across North America? You can thank your neighbourhood blue jay for those. Jays are adept seed planters, and their ability to choose viable seeds and bury them has led scientists to believe that many of the existing oak, and even beech tree forests, exist largely in part to the planting skills of blue jays! Not too shabby, amiright!?
Be ready for repeat customers!
After the winter was over, the birds migrated on, and we thought, well, that was the end of that. But this past October, once again I heard those squawks that made my heart swell a bit (I know, I know high 8). They were back! They were back, and confused because we had torn down the railing and they had nowhere to get their peanuts. No problem though, they patiently waited on low tree branches and fence posts until I came out. They didn’t fly away as I approached within a foot of them. They waited until I pulled those peanuts out of my pockets and lined them up on an old side table.
Now I swear, that as I walk home from taking my daughter to school, I can hear them swooping and squawking over my head, recognizing me, informing me that they’re waiting for their peanuts…which really does make me question just who trained who…
Happy nerdy birding!