A Bird of Affairs

ONE of the most interesting birds I have studied was a blue-jay : I may say is, for he stands at this moment not six feet from me, his whole mind intent upon the business of driving small corks through a hole which they snugly fit. He takes the cork, as he does everything, lengthwise, and turns it about till he gets the smaller end outside ; then pushes it into the hole and pounds it, delivering straight and rapid strokes with his iron beak, till it is not only driven up to the head, but, since he has found out that he can do so, till it drops out on the other side, when, after an interested glance to see where it has fallen, he instantly goes to the floor for another, and repeats the performance. Hammering, indeed, is one of his chief pleasures, and no woodpecker, whose special mission it is supposed to be, can excel him; in excitement, in anger, when suffering from ennui or from embarrassment, he always resorts to that exercise to relieve his feelings. I have thought sometimes he did it to hear the noise and to amuse himself, in which case it might be called drumming.

Not only does my bird occupy himself with corks, but with perches and the woodwork of his cage, with so great success that the former have to be frequently renewed, and the latter looks as though rats had nibbled it. The deliberate way in which he goes to work to destroy his cage is amusing; lifting the end of a perch and quietly throwing it to the floor, pounding and splitting off a big splinter of the soft pine and carefully hiding it. To give him liberty, as I have, is simply to enlarge the field of his labors, and furnish him congenial employment from morning to night, the happiest and busiest member of the household. He tries everything : the corners of card-board boxes, always choosing the spot that is weakest at the corner, and pounding till it is ruined ; the cane seats of chairs, which he selects with equal judgment, and never leaves till he has effected a breach; a delicate work-basket, at which he labors with enthusiasm, driving his pickaxe bill into it and cutting a big hole. It is most curious to see him set himself to pick a hole, for instance, in a close-woven rattan chair, or a firm piece of matting stretched upon the floor. Selecting, by some esoteric wisdom, the most vulnerable spot, he pushes and pounds and pokes till he gets the tip of his beak under a strand, and then pulls and jerks and twists till he draws it out of its place. After this the task is easy, and he spends hours over it, ending with a hole in the matting three or four inches in diameter; for he is never discouraged, and his persistence of purpose is marvelous. Books are a special object of his attentions; not only does he peck the backs as they stand on the shelves, till he can insert his beak and tear off a bit, but if he finds one lying down he thrusts the same useful instrument into the edge, slightly open so as to inclose two or three leaves, and then, with a dexterous twist of the head, jerks out a neat little three-cornered piece. Thus he goes on, and after a short absence from the room I have found a great litter of white bits, and my big dictionary curiously scalloped on the edges. He is able to pound up as well as down, crouching, turning his head back, and delivering tremendous blows on the very spot he wishes, and so accurately that he easily cuts a thread, holding its strands under one toe.

But hammering, though a great pleasure, is not his dearest delight. The thing for which, apparently, he came into the world is to put small objects out of sight, — bury them, in fact. No doubt the business for which Nature fitted him, and which in freedom he would follow with enthusiasm, is the planting of trees ; to his industry we probably owe many an oak and nut tree springing up in odd places. In captivity, poor soul, he does the best he can to fulfill his destiny. When he has more of any special dainty than he can eat at the moment, as meat, or bread and milk, he hides it at the back of his tray, or in the hole already spoken of in connection with the corks; and when outside, nothing can he droller than the air of concern with which he goes around the floor, picking up any small thing he finds, left purposely for him, a burnt match, a small key, stray pins, or a marble, and seeks the very best and most secluded spot in the room in which to hide it.

A pin he takes lengthwise in his mouth, which he closes as though he had swallowed it, as at first I feared he had. He has no doubt about the best place for that; he long ago decided that between the leaves of a book is safest. So he proceeds at once to find a convenient volume, and thrusts the pin far in out of sight. A match gives him the most trouble. He tries the cracks under the grooves in the moulding of the doors, the base board, between the matting and the wall, or under a rocker; in each place he puts it carefully, and pounds it in, then hops off, giving me one of the

“ sidelong glances wise
Wherewith the jay hints tragedies,”

attempting to look unconcerned, as if he had not been doing anything. But if he sees that he is observed, or the match is too plainly in sight, he removes it and begins again, running and hopping around on the floor with the most solemn, business-like air, as though he had the affairs of nations on his shoulders, the match thrust nearly its whole length into his mouth. The place usually decided upon is an opening between the breadths of matting. It is amusing when he chances to get hold of a box of matches, accidentally left open, for he feels the necessity and importance of disposing of each one, and is busy and industrious in proportion to the task before him. It is not so pleasing, however, when, in his hammering, he sets one off, as he often does; for they are “ parlor matches,” and light with a small explosion, which frightens him half out of his wits, and me as well, lest he set the house afire. The business of safely and securely secreting one match will frequently occupy him half an hour. He finds the oddest hiding-places, as in a caster between the wheel and its frame ; up inside the seat of a stuffed chair, to reach which be flies up on to the webbing and goes in among the springs ; in the side of my slipper while on my foot; in the loop of a bow; in the plaits of a ruffle ; under a pillow. Often when I get up a shower of the jay’s treasures falls from various hiding-places about my dress, — nails, matches, shoe buttons, and others; and I am never sure that I shall not find soft, milk-soaked bread in my slipper. But the latest discovered and most annoying of his receptacles is in my hair. He delights in standing on the high back of my rocking-chair, or on my shoulder, and he soon discovered several desirable hiding-places conveniently near, such as my ear, and under the loosely dressed hair. I did not object to his using these, but when he attempted to tuck away some choice thing between my lips I rebelled. I never expect to find a key-hole that he can reach, free from bread crumbs, and the openings of my waste-basket are usually decorated with objects half driven in.

The jay shows unbounded interest in everything. Every sound and every fresh sight arouses him instantly: his crest comes up, his feathers fluff out, and he is on tiptoe to see what will come next. He is remarkably discriminating among people, and takes violent likes and dislikes on the instant. Some persons, without any reason that I can discover, he salutes on their first appearance with an indescribable cry, like “ obble ! obble ! obble ! ” At others he squawks madly. On one occasion he took an intense dislike to a lady of whom birds generally are very fond, and he made a peculiar display of rage, squawking and screaming at her, raising his crest, stamping, snapping his beak, giving vicious digs at the side of the cage, as though he would eat her if he could reach her. And although he often saw her, and she tried her best to win him, he always showed the same spirit, going so far, when out of his cage, as to show fight, fly up at her, peck her savagely, and chase her to the door when she left. Again, a lady came in with her baby, and he at once singled out the infant as his enemy, fixing a very wicked glance on it, but in perfect silence. He jumped back and forth as if mad to get out, and sat with open mouth, panting as if exhausted, with eyes immovably turned to the baby. He would not pay the slightest attention to any one else, nor answer me when I spoke, which was very unusual, till they left the room, when, the moment the door closed behind them, he began rapidly, as though to make up for lost time. Some visitors whom he fancies, he receives in silence, but with slightly quivering wings ; only the very few he loves best are greeted with a low, sweet, and very peculiar chatter, which he keeps up as long as he is talked to.

Investigating everything in the room is one of my bird’s greatest pleasures, and most attractive of all he finds the drawer of my desk, on the edge of which he stands delighted and bewildered by the variety before him. Great would be the havoc if I were not there; and the curious thing about it is that he will pull things over carelessly, with one eye on me, to see if I object. If, on touching some particular thing, he sees that I do not approve, — and he recognizes my sentiment as quickly as a bright child would, — that thing, and that only, he will have. At once he snatches it and flies away across the room, and I may chase him in vain. He regards it as a frolic got up for his amusement, and no child ever equaled him in dodging; he cannot be driven, and if cornered he uses his wings. I simply put my wits against his, follow him about till he has to drop His load to breathe, when a sudden start sends him off, and I secure it. If I cover up anything, he knows at once it is some forbidden treasure, and devotes all his energy and cunning, which are great, to uncovering and possessing himself of it. He opens any box by delivering sharp blows under the edge of the cover, and hides my postage-stamps in books and magazines. He hops around the floor in a heavy way, as often sideways as straight, and holds his toes as close together as though he had worn tight boots all his life. If startled, he bounds up into the air in the oddest way, a foot or two, or even more, generally turning half around, and coming down with his head the other way. If much alarmed, he will bounce up in this way half a dozen times in quick succession, and should he happen to be on a table at the time he usually ends by landing on the floor. His alighting after any flight is most singular : he comes to the floor in a crouching position, legs sprawled, body horizontal and nearly touching the matting, looking like a bird gone mad ; then instantly springs up six or eight inches, half turns, and stands upright, crest erect, and looking excited, almost frightened. If much disturbed, he comes down with wings half open, tail held up, and every feather awry, as if he were out in a gale, uttering at the same time a loud squawk. He is a most expert catcher, not only seizing without fail a canary seed thrown to him, but even fluttering bits of falling paper, the hardest of all things to catch.

The blue-jay is a bird of opinions about most things, and able to express himself quite clearly : as, for example, when he found himself under a chair without rounds, on which he likes to perch, he stood and looked around on every side, and made a low, complaining cry, plainly a protest against so unnatural a chair; and again when he scolded at the rain that came in sudden gusts against the window, or charged furiously at the crack under a door when he heard sweeping outside. In general he is very quiet when one is in the room, but the moment the door closes behind the last person his voice is heard,— whistling exactly like a boy, calling, squawking, and occasionally uttering a sweet though not loud song, which is varied by a sound like rubbing a cork against glass. The most quiet approach silences him. When under strong emotion he may squawk or scream before spectators, but he never whistles or sings when he knows any one is in the room. When out of his sight, and so long silent that he has forgotten me, I have now and then heard the song.

The funniest thing this knowing fellow does is to stamp his feet, and it is a genuine expression of impatience or displeasure. When I take something away from him, or he thinks I mean to do so, or refuse him something he wants, he stands still, and jerks his feet in such a way that they stamp with a loud sound, as if they were of iron. It is very droll. In serious anger, he adds to this, bowing and curtsying by bending the legs, snapping the bill, pecking, and jumping up with the body without lifting the feet.

It may be that the jay in freedom disturbs other birds, as has been affirmed, but among a number smaller than himself my bird has never once showed the least hostility. He is interested in their doings, but the only unpleasant thing he has done is to shriek and scream to stop their singing. In spite of his natural boldness, always facing the enemy, always ready to fight, and never running from danger nor allowing himself to be driven anywhere, when he is not quite well he is a timid bird. In moulting, this spring, my jay lost his entire tail, and was extremely awkward in getting about, almost helpless, in fact; and at that time he was afraid to hop to the floor, and refused to come out of the cage. (I should have said, by the way, that he feared hurting himself ; he was quite as spirited as ever, as ready to show fight.) To get him out of the door I offered him the greatest inducements, with the cage on the floor, so that he could not fall far. He would stand on the lowest perch, three inches from the floor, look at the meat or whatever treasure I placed in the open door-way, and cry, a faint, low, jay-baby cry, yet not dare descend, though plainly aching with desire to get the object so nearly within his reach. Even since he is entirely recovered and the possessor of a beautiful long tail, he dreads the one little step, and has to be coaxed out and in his cage every day, as we coax a startled child.

Nothing ever interested the jay more than a piano, though he is fond of any music. The first time he heard one he quickly hopped across to the player, pulled at the hem of her dress, flew up to her lap, then her arm, and mounted to her shoulder, where he stood some time, looking and listening, turning his head this way and that, raising his crest, jerking his body, and in every way showing intense excitement. Finally he took his last step, to the top of her head, where he was more pleased to he than the player was to have him. She put him down, and the next time he tried a different way: mounted to the keys, and thence to the cover, crouching and peering under the lid to see where the sounds came from. Satisfied about this, he returned to her head, which he evidently considered the best post of observation. Every time she played she received the devoted attentions of the bird, and he could not be kept away.

My blue-jay is now a beautiful creature, in perfect plumage, with breast and back plumes so long that often in repose, just after he has dressed them, the violet blue of the back meets the light drab of his breast, on the side, covering his wings completely, and making a lovely picture. All through the spring excitement, when the other birds, one after another, grew uneasy, belligerent, or unhappy, and one after another were returned to freedom, he never showed a moment’s uneasiness, an instant’s desire to be free, but scrupulously attended to his own regular business, which is to pound and pull and peck to pieces my furniture, and especially to destroy my books.

As these last words are written, just at. dusk, the dear, troublesome rogue comes down to the corner of his cage nearest to me, and as if he understood that I had said something about him begins to talk and remonstrate in a low, loving tone. I do feel reproached, and I must unsay it. His business, his manifest destiny, is to hammer and peck the shells of nuts, and to hide them away where they will grow; and if cruel man confines him in a house, he must exercise his untiring energy, his demon of work, in what he finds there, — and who can blame him, or find fault ? Not I, certainly.

Olive Thorne Miller.