My Earliest Impression of Teedeeuk was that he gave life and color and a voice to a winter landscape which without him would be a frozen silence. And to this day there is something in the bright flash of his wing or his rousing call that heartens a lone man in the solitude like the first gleam and crackle of a campfire. Not till one went away to his own mysterious affairs did I ask, with a vague wonder, what fickle or stable character is hidden under those gay feathers? What merry or mocking spirit animates him when he swoops silently at a cat, or whistles at a man, or sounds his tallyho over a hunted fox, or sends back the wild cry of a circling hawk?
Since these questions are beyond me or, I suppose, any man, why not let Teedeeuk himself answer them by his actions? Even so we must be careful not to misunderstand him. More than any other bird of my acquaintance, he has a way with him, a way which changes to suit whatever part he may be playing in the woodfolk comedy. It looks like a gallant way, but is not, when he flits in haste to answer a distress call, his crest cocked like a champion; or it looks like an ingratiating way when he finds me quiet in the woods and perches near my head to repeat his Indian name, which is like other bird sounds in that it has different meanings when uttered on a higher or lower pitch, in forte or pianissimo volume.
The last two syllables of that name, with the "dee" prolonged and accented, are the blue jay's alarm call as he speeds over pasture and woodland.
The first time his Indian name ever sounded softly in my ear was on a winter day when I found a blue jay caught in a jump trap which a neighbor's boy had set under a cedar and had sprinkled liberally with grain. In pecking at the bait Teedeeuk had sprung the trap, which clamped its jaws on the base of his bill, holding him fast but harming him not at all. There was no fear in his bright eye when I bent over him, but only bewilderment with something else that may have been surprise or relief at my coming. When set free he obeyed his first impulse by flying off with a cry of resentment, but in a moment he returned, apparently forgetful of the trap in his curiosity over the boy. From branch to branch of the cedar he flitted, just out of reach, repeating his Indian name with variations, dee-uk, tee-dee-uk, tiddy-dee-uk, each with an upslide, as if saying in his most ingratiating way, "You might at least tell me who you are, and what you are doing here, and where your nest is, and all about it. I will find out anyway."
May 5, 1957
How could a boy confidently interpret the anima of a blue jay or of any other bird? The answer is simple, and fortunately there is no need of calling any mystic or psychic sense to our aid. Aside from action Teedeeuk always gives one visible sign of his changing emotions. Even as you may know something of the mind of a dog from his tail, whether tucked or stiffened or waving or wagging, so you may enter into the mind of a blue jay by keeping an attentive eye on his crest, which is seldom quiet except when he is himself at rest. When well pleased with what he sees or hears or does, all of his feathers are as one feather. When he is greatly surprised or excited the crest points forward of the perpendicular; or when he is frightened it bristles out like a bottle brush. When all his feathers are snugged down so close that you think he has no crest, that is the very moment when Teedeeuk is eloquently revealing that he does not want to be noticed—that he is snooping into what the woodfolk might regard as their private affairs.
In the last-named habit is a possible explanation of why some birds show uneasiness or hostility when a blue jay appears among them. It is Teedeeuk's particular pleasure to play the role of Paul Pry, and woodfolk have the same aversion to such a character as we do when he appears in human form. Although he does no harm by his snooping, this charge too is added to what it seems to me is an already unwarranted list of prejudices against him.
For example, it is commonly stated that the blue jay is a cruel bird, a troublemaker, a nest robber, a killer of fledglings, a feathered villain and a reprobate.
Now it happens that in my childhood one of my pleasures was to watch the many feathered folk that flocked to the table I set for them. Child training was rather strict in those days, when good manners were the hallmark of good breeding, and it seemed to me that Teedeeuk had excellent table manners. For all his bold appearance he was, next to the lovable chickadees, the most careful to give no offense.
Later, in a more thickly settled corner of New England, this childhood pleasure was renewed by setting a birds' table every winter for 36 consecutive years. Between whiles I made several brief winter camps in the Canadian wilds, where a bountiful table was set outside my cabin window. I know not how many hundred jays or how many thousand individuals of other species were directly under my eye, but I never saw Teedeeuk begin a quarrel with any other bird, although several times I saw one or another of them chivvy him away from the table.
As for nest robbing, only twice in a lifetime have I seen a blue jay eat eggs. And an honored acquaintance of mine, who has been a lifelong observer of birds, tells me that he once, just once, saw a blue jay throw fledgling sparrows out of a nest, apparently in sheer mischief since he flew off without eating them.
And to go on to clarify another misjudgment: far out in the lower half of Moosehead Lake is Gull Island, a lonely place, densely wooded, known only to gulls that use it every season for a nesting site. I was hidden there one heavenly June morning when the lake was too calm for fly fishing, hoping to learn by what strange sense of affinity a mother gull can distinguish her ill-visaged fledgling in a group of 10 or 40 others, all alike in size, shape, color and reptilian ugliness.
Every now and then a mother bird would wheel in from the lake, drop lightly to earth, and go straight to a certain fledgling as if she not only knew him but remembered which one of her brood had last been fed. Gently the mother bird avoided or brushed the small ones aside, till one open mouth rang a bell of affinity in her brain. Into it she hastily pumped a portion of half-digested food, then was away again to find a dead fish or a bed of fresh-water clams or a nest of sandpiper or sheldrake eggs.
During her absence, when nothing stirred but the fledglings, I caught my breath at sight of a blue jay in the middle of the nesting ground, the last place one would look for him or for any other small intruder.
My first thought, that he might be nest robbing, raised the question of how he would handle eggs that in his eye must have looked as if a behemoth had laid them, but though many were in sight he paid them no attention. Straight to a hollow containing two newly hatched birds he went, and hovering over them alertly, stopped on either side to prod them with his bill. At his approach they opened their mouths wide; at his prod they snuggled down to earth, obeying the primal impulse of every helpless creature to be quiet at the appearance of an enemy.
After eying the unresponsive things a moment, suspiciously, Teedeeuk hurried to a group of larger fledglings, which he kept prodding, prodding, until one opened its mouth to pump up what had recently been pumped down. Hastily Teedeeuk gobbled a morsel of the disgorged food for himself. Then with a larger portion in his bill he flew to a spruce tree, where later I found his nest. Being at the moment too much interested in his comedy to spoil it by showing myself, I failed to see whether he was dutifully feeding his young or gallantly refreshing his brooding mate.
Because gulls have no happy-family understanding with other birds, I idly moralized over Teedeeuk—asking by what chance he had learned how to make a fledgling gull unswallow its breakfast. Suddenly there he was again on the forbidden ground. He was roughly prodding another group of fledglings, evidently expecting more food of the same kind, when he vanished like a wink. Hardly was he gone before a gull wheeled in from the lake to feed her young with no apparent suspicion that something was wrong, or sadly amiss.
Teedeeuk's prime trait or quality is the curiosity which impels him to investigate everything that goes on in his neighborhood and as far beyond as he can see or hear.
A natural supplement to this is his bent for telling the news like a town crier. At the feeding table, for example, when other feathered guests may be off guard while satisfying their sharp hunger, Teedeeuk is commonly the first to detect a distant hawk and cry the alarm. On hearing it the birds flit away into hiding—all but Teedeeuk—and to observe him now is to note a significant thing. If the hawk sails on into the blue, Teedeeuk whistles his mellowest kloo-loo-loo, as if to say that the danger is past; or he follows whenever the hawk circles wide around the yard, giving tongue on the trail.
The western blue jay is more silent than the newsmonger of our eastern woods. He is also brighter in color, the blue of his back and wings having a luster like the glint of sunshine on still water; but that is all on the surface, and from a small acquaintance I should say that he and Teedeeuk are twin brothers under their skins.
One afternoon, while holding watch over a place that seemed to belong to me alone, a quick-moving shadow told of life on the wing, and I looked up to see a blue jay fly along the Grand Canyon rim before he turned into the pinewoods behind me.
Placing two fingers against my lips I pulled a breath between them to imitate the squeaky cry one hears when birds are having a tiff or calling for help or telling a cat what they think of her. Hardly had it broken the enormous silence when a blue jay flashed out of the pines to answer it; not by his voice, for he said never a word during the interview, but by his bright eyes with their questions like pinpoints, and by his bodily attitude, which changed with his emotions as a weather vane turns to shifting winds.
After a quiet interval of five or 10 minutes another call brought him out again and now as he held still for a moment he gave me a sign whereby to know him if we should meet again. One of the secondary quills of a wing was sadly awry, a result either of the long-gone moulting season or of a heedless fight in thick cover.
Suddenly there was a violent—though short-lived-thunderstorm. A rainbow had formed when the blue jay appeared once more on the scene—the same bird, as one knew by a glance at his telltale wing. Almost in the middle of a jutting rock was a hollow, not much wider than my hat and perhaps two or three inches deep, which the rain had filled to the brim. Straight to it came my blue jay. Never have I seen a bird more plainly happy. All jays are fond of bathing, as you may know if you keep a pool for the birds.
I wondered what startled him, knowing that it was no motion of mine. He flew away and then returned with another jay, his mate presumably, who had all the while been brooding her eggs. Like the cavalier that he was he stood aside while she enjoyed her tub, splashing merrily. Came then the final scene. They stood silent a while on the verge of the canyon, the glory of creation round about them, before flying off together to their nest in the pines.
Though birds lack our human gift of language, they have another and perhaps surer way of sharing small thoughts that have no outlet in emotional cries. What is that silent way, you ask? It is, I think, by mutual sympathy, which alone gives perfect understanding—only another way of saying that the lower orders may communicate directly, mind to mind or animal to animal, without need of our always imperfect and often misleading speech.