Lessons Learned from Blue Jays

Learn how birds can tell us something surprising about ourselves.

Posted Nov 07, 2018

My wife Chris and I are owned by two California Scrub Jays, also called Aphelocoma californica.  

Eighteen months ago, when we first started luring the beautiful creatures to our porch, then into our house with unshelled peanuts, we thought our relationship with the mating pair went the other way around—that the jays, who we believe nest somewhere on our property, were “our birds.” But recently, Chris and I have come to believe that the it is the birds who actually own us. 

You see, the birds have trained us carefully and thoroughly. 

Whenever we hear their distinctive vocalizations—which the printed word cannot begin to convey, so I won’t bother trying—we stop whatever we’re doing, rush outside, and commence making clicking noises that we imagine are suitable answers to their calls. Then, when the animals alight on our barbecue or pomegranate bush, and sometimes on our porch table, we dutifully supply them unsalted roasted peanuts in the shell, which we keep in a large bag on the dining room table near the porch. If troublesome crows circle, we shoo the large predators away to protect our owners, whom I have named Adam and Sophie. More about the names later.

The realization that we had the ownership relationship backwards, in the sense that we serve the birds, not the other way around, made me question other initial assumptions I had made about the birds, all of which, upon deeper examination, have turned out to be wrong.

For instance, the larger of the two Jays is by far the more timid of the two. It will wait on its perch atop the bush until a peanut lands a suitably safe distance from us, say about 10 feet away, before it swoops in a grabs the nut, departing as fast as possible (see below). Owing to its timidity, we assumed this bird was female and, with Chris’s concurrence, I named it Sophie.

Eric Haseltine
Sophie attacking peanut
Source: Eric Haseltine

In comparison, the smaller bird of the pair is quite daring (again, see below). It will go after a nut thrown within a couple feet of us, and even venture into the house. And instead of flitting off a millisecond after a peanut is safe in its beak, it will weigh different nuts—if there is more than one available—picking them up with its beak, dropping them, then picking up another, and so on, until it has found the heftiest, after which it will depart at leisure. One time Chris even saw this bird return with a nut he’d just flown off with, drop it where he’d found it, and grab a better goober before winging away. Believing this audacious bird to be a male, I gave it the name, once again with Chris’s consent, Adam.

Eric Haseltine
Adam weighing, deciding
Source: Eric Haseltine

Comparing the two creatures’ behavior over the months, we assumed that the daring male was the dominant bird while the larger, more skittish female was submissive.

But then Chris started to notice that the adventurous Jay always waited for the more timid bird to feed before taking its own turn, and frequently would be chased off by the larger bird.

This was perplexing. How could the same bird be both timid and dominant, while the other be both daring and submissive? In humans, at least, these pairings don’t naturally go together.

Or do they?.

Take Chris and I. 

I’m on the wrong side of 200 pounds, a tad over 6 feet with, I’ve been told more than once, a loud, domineering personality. In contrast, Chris is 5’3,” tops the scale at 98 pounds, is quiet, polite to a fault and universally regarded as “sweet.”

But in our relationship, which one of us rules the roost, is at the top of the pecking order and the leader of the flock?  Well, it’s not me.

Humans and Jays, it seems, are more alike than I thought.

One last point: I found out just this morning that Aphelocoma californica  are sexually dimorphic, with the males almost always being the larger member of the mating pair. So it would seem that Adam is really Sophie and Sophie, Adam.

What bird brain ever thought otherwise?

Answer: The submissive member of the mating pair.