Stellar’s Jays

If I had to choose a favorite bird I probably wouldn’t be able to.  We’ve had a tiny ruby crowned kinglet trying to get into our house for the past few days and it is charming with its petite round body and its bright red crown.  It flits about the blackberry brambles outside our kitchen windows calling chit, chit, chit, picking spiders and insets from the webs draped between thorns.  It could be a contender for favorite bird but it’s awfully new on the scene.  There are bushtits which were one of the first birds I ever saw after moving onto the farm and they are the epitome of charming.  They are as small as the kinglet but putty colored and lacking the red crown. They arrive by the dozens, flitting through the hazelnut trees like musical notes falling from the business end of a jazzy clarinet. Their call is an abbreviated little tick, tick, tick and they disappear as quickly as they arrive. 

Then there are the mourning doves, also the same putty color as our gravel road is when its dry in summer. They blend right into it and sometimes they fly up from the road as I speed past startling me enough that I slow down and watch for their bobbing gait along the side of the road. That they are beautiful almost goes without saying but it is their mournful call that is so enchanting to me.  I remember the first time I heard it waking up slowly in Long Beach, California after a night of heavy drinking.  The room was dimly lit by the sunlight seeping in through the cracks of the venetian blinds which were mercifully closed tight.  The bed and walls were done entirely in white and in the pale light I felt as though I was waking into a cocoon. Outside the mourning doves called coo, coo, coo. I wondered briefly if I had made it to another day or I had died in the night and was waking to a sort of weigh station on my journey to wherever I was meant to go. Mourning doves can sound so otherworldly it was difficult to determine my status for a few minutes until I tried sitting up and the room began to spin, then I knew I was alive.

In the fall when the days grow shorter and cooler and the leaves turn orange I would tell you my favorite birds are the Stellar’s jays which make their triumphant return before winter sets in.  It’s not so much their startlingly blue bodies, deep like lapis, iridescent almost, or their sharp black crowns, though those are something to look at.  What I like best is their voice.  Mostly they screech and call to each other which I find amusing and somewhat comforting in the stillness of the gray winter.  It lets me know someone’s out there keeping track of things, someone knows what’s going on, even if it’s just about what’s going on with the supply of black oil sunflower seeds in the feeder.  Someone’s paying attention.  If the situation threatens to get out of control they’ve got a handle on it and that’s a comfort to me, sitting inside in my warm house, avoiding the travails of the unpleasant weather they relish. The other thing they do with their voice is they mimic.  They listen to the sounds the other birds make and they make those sounds themselves.  So when I jump up from the couch and run to the window excited to see the raven in my front yard I will inevitably be met with a much smaller, much bluer Stellar’s jay standing on a fence post doing his best raven impersonation for no reason that I can see other than for the fun of it. Sometimes while I stand there watching, he’ll throw his voice back and forth between a raven and a crow or a raven and a scrub jay as though a soloist warming up for a concert. A Stellar’s jay will also participate in the much beloved sport of ambushing smaller birds from their place at the feeders, again for the seeming fun of it as it often doesn’t even bother to eat once it’s scared everyone away.

Maybe it’s just because it’s early winter now or because I saw one this morning standing in the corkscrew willow, screeching a speech about some kind of imminent peril the towhees at the feeder were facing, I’ll put my money on the Stellar’s jays as the odds on favorite.

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