The Blue-Jay Family

IN an intellectual point of view, the whole family to which our common and familiar Blue Jay belongs are unsurpassed by any of the feathered tribe. The study of their habits is full of interest, and affords evidences of sagacity, forethought, and a conformity to circumstances wonderfully like the results of reason rather than the blind promptings of a mere instinct. These peculiarities are confined to no one species, but are common to the entire family, so far as they have fallen under the observation of naturalists. The habits of our own Blue Jay and those of the common Jay of Europe—the two best known of any of the race — are so nearly identical, that, except in their places of residence, the history of the one might almost serve for that of the other. When first observed in wild and unexplored sections of this country, the Jay is shy and suspicious of man. Yet, curious to a remarkable degree, he follows the intruder on his privacy, watches his movements, and hovers about his steps with great pertinacity, keeping at a respectful distance, even betore he can have had occasion to dread weapons of destruction. This has been noticed in regard to all our American Jays, of which there are eleven varieties. Upon their first introduction to man their cautious study of the stranger has been described as something quite remarkable. Afterwards, on becoming better acquainted, the Jay conforms his conduct to the treatment he receives. Here in New England, where he is hunted in wanton sport, sought for on account of his brilliant plumage, and persecuted generally because of his bad reputation, he is shy and wary, and avoids as much as possible all human society. In the Western States, where he is comparatively exempt from persecution, as well as in certain other portions of the country where he is unmolested, we find the Jay as confiding and familiar even as the common Robin. Mr. J. A. Allen recently found these birds “common in the groves of Iowa, and nearly as unsuspicious as the Black-capped Titmouse.” Afterwards, in Illinois, he found the Jay “ very abundant and half domestic.” This result is due, at least in part, to “the kind treatment it receives from the farmers, who not only do not molest it, but are pleased with its presence.” In Indiana the same remarkable familiarity was noticed. The Jays were abundant, and so unsuspicious that the nest of a pair was noticed in a bunch of lilacs under a window, on one of the principal streets of Richmond. And the writer remembers to have seen the nest of the Blue Jay filled with young birds on the grounds of the late Mr. Audubon, within the limits of New York City, in July, 1843; and at another time to have found a nest in the borough of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a few feet from a public street. So great is the difference of habit, induced by persecution on the one hand and kind treatment on the other, in the Jays of Massachusetts and those of the West! No two species could well be more unlike.

The Jay is arboreal in its habits, — more so than any bird of the same order. It prefers the shelter and security of thick covers to more open ground. It is omnivorous, eating either animal or vegetable food, though not without an apparent preference for the former, feeding upon insects, their eggs and larvæ, and worms wherever procurable, and laying up large stores of acorns and beech-mast for winter provisions, when insects are no longer procurable. All our writers agree in charging the Blue Jay with a strong propensity to destroy the eggs and young of the smaller birds, and declare that it even pursues, kills, and devours the full-grown birds. While we are not able to verify these charges from our own observations, they seem to be too generally conceded for us to dispute their correctness. Admitting, then, their justice, they are the chief if not the only ground of complaint which exists against the Jays. Their depredations upon the garden and the cornfields are too trivial to be mentioned.

Their destruction of other birds, and their alleged misdeeds in this connection, have given the Jays a bad name, and have made them objects of dislike and persecution both with man and with the more courageous of the feathered tribes, especially the Kingbirds, the Wrens, and the Robins. Their noisy, loquacious habits are often very annoying to the sportsman, whom they follow in his excursions, warning off his game. They are therefore no favorites with the hunter, and generally receive no mercy at his hands.

The Jay is one of our most conspicuous musicians, exhibiting a variety in his notes, and occasionally a beauty and a harmony in his song, for which very few give him due credit. Wilson, generally a very accurate observer, compares his position among our feathered songsters to that of the trumpeter in a band. His notes he varies at will to an almost infinite extent, now screaming with all his might, now singing and warbling with the softness of tone and modulation of the Bluebird, and at another time imparting to his voice the grating harshness of a wheel creaking on an ungreased axle.

His power of mimicry is hardly surpassed by that of the Mocking-bird itself. In those parts of the country where the Sparrow-hawk is abundant the Jay delights to imitate its cry, which it does to perfection. At other times the cries of the Red-shouldered and the Red-tailed Hawks are given with such exactness that the smaller birds fly to a covert and the inmates of the poultry-yard are in the greatest alarm. Other sounds the Jay will imitate with equal success, even to the continuous song of a bird. The European Jay has been known to imitate the neighing of a horse so perfectly as to deceive the most practised ear.

When reared from the nest the Jay becomes very tame, and is perfectly reconciled to confinement. It very soon grows into an amusing pet, learning to imitate the human voice, and almost any other sound it hears. There are several well-attested instances on record in which both our own Blue Jay and the common Jay of Europe have been taught to articulate Several words. They have also learned to imitate the bleating of lambs, the mewing of a cat, the hooting of owls, and various other sounds, even to the crowing of a cock and the barking and cries of a housedog. Wilson gives an account of one that had been brought up in the family of a gentleman in South Carolina, and that had all the loquacity of a parrot. He seemed to delight in pilfering everything he could conveniently carry off, for no other apparent purpose than to hide it. This bird could utter some words with great distinctness, and whenever called would answer to his name with great sociability.

But however interesting the habits of the Blue Jay may appear when examined, however bright and attractive its plumage, however remarkable its sagacity and intelligence, or however entertaining its peculiarities, both in a wild and in a partially domesticated state, this bird does not seem to have been held in very high favor by our ornithological writers. They all dwell, with what appears to us an unfair and unjust emphasis, upon his faults, and refer but very slightly and only incidentally to the good deeds which he is ever performing, but for which he receives so little credit. Recent investigations into the history of the European Jay demonstrate that during the winter months he feeds very largely upon the larvæ and the eggs of the caterpillars, which, when unchecked, commit such fearful ravages among the forests of Europe; and that the value of the property which each year this species aids to save from destruction may be estimated at millions of dollars. The services rendered by our common Blue Jay, though not generally known, are also of the highest value. Mr, J. A. Allen, in his list of the birds found near Springfield, Massachusetts, mentions finding the eggs of the tent caterpillar in the stomachs of the Blue Jays which he killed during the winter months. Mr. Allen was the first, so far as we are aware, among our writers, to make public this very important fact. Its significance can hardly be overestimated. It shows that our own species have the same highly valuable habits and taste in these respects as the European species, and that there can be no doubt that these birds are constantly rendering very similar services to our own North American forests, for which they receive little or no credit.

Fortunately, however, besides this corroborative testimony of Mr. Allen, we are in possession of evidence of the most conclusive character, furnished us by the ripe experience and the careful observations of one of our best ornithologists, than whom we can desire no better and no higher authority. The venerable Jared P. Kirtland of Cleveland, Ohio, who has enjoyed peculiarly favorable opportunities for studying the habits of our Jays, and who has also well improved them, has furnished us with the most satisfactory and perfectly conclusive evidence that these birds, where they are protected and encouraged, are not only the most available means we have of removing that great pest of the orchard, the tent caterpillar, but that so complete and sweeping can be their extirpation of this nuisance that for miles around a given district not so much as an individual shall be left. What a pregnant commentary do the facts communicated by Dr. Kirtland suggest upon the recent empirical and short-sighted legislation of Massachusetts, where the Blue Jays, in common with the Owls and the Crows,— probably, without any exception, the three most valuable classes of birds to be found within the limit of the State, —are specially denied protection and virtually outlawed ! We shall permit our venerable friend to tell the interesting story of his pets in his own words. The letter from which these extracts are taken is dated “ East Rockport, near Cleveland, January 1, 1869.”

“ THE MISSION OF Birds' has been a favorite study of mine nearly seventy years, and loses none of its interest with the advancement of age. Before I knew anything of ornithology as a science, or had access to the first edition of Wilson in 1813 — 14, I had become familiar with the common names and habits of very many of the birds of Connecticut, and the summer and autumn of 1810, spent in Northern Ohio, furnished me with a starting-point to note the wonderful changes in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, incidental to the conversion of this State from a wilderness into a land of cities, villages, and cultivated farms,-— changes as great and numerous as those which mark the transition of one period into another in geological history.

“ In the year 1840 I located on my farm bordering on Lake Erie, five miles west of Cleveland. Every apple and wild-cherry tree in the vicinity was then extensively impaired, disfigured, and denuded of its leaves, by the bagworm (called in New England the tent caterpillar, Clisiocampa Americana of Harris), which annually appeared in numerous colonies. The evil was so extensive that even the most thorough farmers ceased, in despair, to attempt its counteraction. At that period I began to set out evergreen-trees of many species extensively, both for the shelter and the ornament of my grounds,— an example soon followed by several of my neighbors. Favorable soil and cultivation rapidly developed stately growths, forest-like, in dense clumps.

“While these were progressing extensive ranges of native hemlocks and pines, bordering the precipitous banks of Rocky River, were as rapidly falling before the axe and cultivation. These ranges are from two to seven miles west from my locality, and had long been a favorite resort of the Jay, as well as numerous other birds, not to mention quadrupeds and reptiles.

“ When my Norway spruces had attained to the height of some ten or twelve feet, I was pleased to find them occupied, one spring, by colonies of these Jays, apparently migrating from the perishing evergreen forests along the river, and during the ensuing winter the new tenants, augmented in numbers, made these incipient forests their places of abode. Each successive year found them still more numerous and exempt from the interruption of their enemies, the red squirrel, blue racer, and idle gunners, all of whom were abundant and destructive in their former resorts. They soon became so familiar as to feed about our yards and corn-cribs.

“ At the dawn of every pleasant day, throughout the year, the nesting season excepted, a stranger in my house might well suppose that all the axles in the county were screeching aloud for lubrication, hearing the harsh and discordant utterances of these birds. During the day the poultry might be frequently seen running into their hiding-places, and the gobbler with his upturned eye searching the heavens for the enemy, all excited and alarmed by the mimic utterances of the adept ventriloquists, the Jays simulating the cries of the Red-shouldered and the Red-tailed Hawks.

“ The domestic circle of the barnyard evidently never gained any insight into the deception by experience ; for, though the trick was repeated every few hours, the excitement would always be re-enacted.

“ During the period of incubation silence reigned, not a note or utterance was heard ; and it required close scrutiny to discover the numerous individual Jays concealed in the dense clumps of limbs and foliage. If, however, a stranger, a dog, cat, hawk, or owl, chanced to invade these evergreen groups, the scene rapidly changed. Such screaming, screeching, and opprobrious scoldings ensued as would lead one to consider Xantippe amiable and reticent in comparison with these birds.

“ With my person they became so familiar that I could closely approach them and sit for hours under the shade of these trees, without exciting their fears. A family cemetery occupies a place beneath the evergreens. On one occasion a lady, pensively bent over the grave of a departed friend, strewing flowers, received a smart blow on the head. Alarmed, she arose, expecting to discover some evil-disposed person in the vicinity. Her eye could not ascertain the source of the blow, and she resumed her occupation, when the blow was renewed, and she soon saw her assailant perched on a limb just overhead, threatening to renew the contest. Near by was a female bird, brooding over a nest of young, and angrily watching the intruder.

“ The late Dr. Esteep of Canton, Ohio, an experienced bird-fancier, while examining my Jayery,— if you will excuse this coinage, — some years since, informed me that he had pet Jays, and that he found them more ingenious, cunning, and teachable than any other species of birds he had ever attempted to instruct. My own observations, derived from watching my colony for many years, convince me of the correctness of his conclusions.

“ Although I rarely read fiction, yet I recollect the long period of time it took Cooper, in ‘The Pioneers,’ to get his heroine from the top of the hill, which disclosed the view of Templeton, to her father’s residence in the village. After the lapse of a period nearly as long, we have at length arrived at the subject-matter of my communication, to wit, The Insectivorous Habits of the Blue Jay.

“ Soon after they had emigrated to my evergreens, I one day noticed one of the birds engaged in tearing open a nest of the bag-worm on an apple-tree. Thinking the act was a mere destructive impulse, I was about walking away, when the bird, with its bill apparently filled with several living and contorting larvæ, changed its position to a tree close by where I was standing. After several nervous and angry bows of the head and flirts of the wings, it eyed me sternly and seemed to say, ' You are inquisitive and meddling with that which is none of your business. We are like our secesh friends wishing to be let alone.’ Its next removal was to an adjacent black-spruce-tree, where I could plainly see it distributing the captive bag-worms to sundry open and uplifted mouths.

“From this hint I was led closely to watch the further proceedings of the community. Before the young birds had passed from the care of the parents, most of the worm’s nests had been broken into, many were torn into threads, and the number of occupants evidently diminished. Two or three years afterwards not a worm was to be seen in that neighborhood, and more recently I have searched for it in vain, in order to rear some cabinet specimens of the moth. In several adjacent townships it is said to be still common.

“ Early in the month of April, two years since, my attention was awakened by a commotion among the birds in my evergreens. It involved not only Jays and Crow Blackbirds, but Robins and Bluebirds. Combatants seemed to have gathered from the whole country around. At times half a dozen of these several species would engage in a contest, screaming, biting, and pulling out feathers; and at length, in many instances, the birds, lost in rage, would actually fall to the ground. For two days this fight continued. At length the Jays disappeared, and I have not seen half a dozen individuals on my farm since that period. A numerous colony of Crow Blackbirds have reared their young there during the two past seasons, and have been equally assiduous in collecting worms of different species. Whether the abandoning of the locality by the Jays was owing exclusively to the intrusion of the Blackbirds, or in part to the scarcity of their favorite bag-worms, I cannot well determine.”

We can add nothing which will impart greater force or weight to testimony so full and conclusive. The vexatious and annoying nature of the mischief wrought in orchards throughout the country by these caterpillars is too familiar to every one to require comment on the value of the services rendered by the Jay in their extirpation. The extermination of the measureworms in New York by the European Sparrow has not been more complete and satisfactory. Shall such facts as these continue to be dumb to us? Shall we of New England continue to persecute a bird which Providence designed for our benefactor and friend, and our committees on agriculture at the State House report bills, and our legislature re-enact laws, branding them as outlaws and inviting their destruction ?

Before we leave the subject, it may not be amiss to refer to a few recent well-attested instances in which the services rendered by various birds have been positive and efficient.

Early in the fall of 1868 the complaint was loud and general throughout the Southern seaboard, that the crop of Sea Island cotton was in great danger of being destroyed through the ravages of the cotton-worm. This pest had appeared, over a wide extent of territory, in such numbers that it was impossible by human agency to arrest its progress. Yet it was arrested promptly, effectually, and completely. Our wellknown Bobolinks — the Reed-bird of Pennsylvania and the Rice-bird of the Carolinas — chanced to make their appearance in their Southern migrations, and just in the nick of time. Instead of attacking the rice-fields the new-comers went into the cotton-fields and accomplished in a few hours what man had despaired of doing. They devoured the worms and saved the cotton crop. The birds were worth thousands of dollars to the Southern planters. Will these remember their services, and for the future protect their valuable lives from the murderous gun of the epicure and his purveyors ?

In the spring of 1867 the grasshoppers had deposited their eggs by the million throughout the cultivated fields of Kansas, threatening the general destruction of the crops. Just as they were beginning to hatch out large flocks of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus icterocephalus, Baird) appeared in their Northern migrations. They soon discovered the grasshoppers and devoured them, making clean work. Wherever a flock alighted upon the fields, the rear birds kept flying to the front, from time to time, as the grasshoppers disappeared. The farmers of Kansas owe to these birds the salvation of their wheat crop, and probably thousands, if not millions, in a money value.

The Republican or Cliff Swallow (Hirundo lunifrons) is another bird that has been ascertained to fulfil a useful and important mission in behalf of the pomologist. Dr. Kirtland writes us, that, from his earliest acquaintance with Cleveland and its vicinity, the pear and the cherry trees have been much injured by the slug. In recent years, colonies of these Swallows have taken up their summer abode in various parts of the surrounding country ; wherever these colonies make their annual visitations the slugs entirely disappear from the neighborhood, the parent fly of the slug being caught by the swallows.

“ No bird,” the same accurate observer writes us, “fulfils its mission more beneficially and effectually than the diminutive House-Wren. The bee-moth, it is well known, has been for more than half a century a great obstacle to success in bee-culture in the United States. Some years since I observed this wren daily prying into my hives, capturing every worm which had been expelled therefrom and digging out with its bill the chrysalids concealed in various cracks, nooks, and corners about the hive. From this discovery I was encouraged to patronize this bird. Empty oyster-cans, cattle’s skulls, boxes, and holes bored into the cornices, were all devoted to it for breeding-places. War was openly declared against all cats, and waged to extermination by aid of a terrier dog. With these auxiliaries, the Wrens, the spiders, an ichneumon insect, and Longstroth’s movable comb-hives, the bee-moth has lost all its terrors, and is no longer any detriment to the apiarist.”

We might go on and multiply similar instances, covering all Orders and genera of our birds, not omitting even the Gulls, which have been also of such signal service to the pioneers of Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, and saved them from starvation by destroying the locusts and grasshoppers. But we have already opened the question sufficiently, and we trust that it will not be again closed until wiser laws, a healthier public opinion, and more correct information shall have become the result of the fullest investigations and the most careful scrutiny of the habits of birds.

The present law of Massachusetts, nominally for the preservation and protection of birds, is discreditable to the State, for its incoherency, its incompleteness, and its inconsistencies. It should be radically changed. Except for the occasional purposes of scientific studies, no birds should be permitted to be molested in the breeding-season. The nests, eggs, and young of all birds should be protected and their wanton molestation punished. No birds should be permitted to be hunted during the season of reproduction, or from February until September. During the other seven months of the year, only those birds that are serviceable to man for purposes of food should be suffered to be hunted, and in their case no exterminating mode of warfare should be permitted. These simple and general principles require but a brief and consistent enactment, which, once passed, the rapidly improving public sentiment in favor of the birds will not fail to see faithfully observed and enforced.