The Birds in Blue
As I write my tympanic membranes are being somewhat rudely shaken by the clamorous voices of a brood of young blue jays, which are in a nest somewhere in one of the chimneys of my bungalow.
From the point of view of the blue jays the site they have chosen for their nursery is an admirable one; indeed, had the architect of the bungalow received a handsome "tip" he could not have provided the birds with more comfortable accommodation.
The shaft of the chimney is not straight, as, in my humble opinion, it should be. At a few feet from the top it is bent at a right angle, and runs horizontally for a short distance before it again assumes what I consider to be its normal course.
The architect was, however, not such a fool as he may appear, for it is quite impossible to clean properly the chimney of his design; it must therefore take fire sooner or later, and the fire may spread and result in the destruction of the house. The re-erection thereof would of course mean more work for the said architect.
The blue jays are as satisfied as the designer with the chimney, because the horizontal portion forms a shelf upon which they can lay their eggs. These are visible neither from above nor from below, and they are as inaccessible as invisible, for the chimney is so narrow as to baffle all attempts at ascent or descent on the part of human beings.
The blue jays make good to my ear what they deny my eye. The young hopefuls utter unceasingly a loud cry resembling that of some creature in distress. This is what I have to listen to all the time I am in the bungalow. Outside, the parent birds make the welkin ring with their raucous voices. Never were father and mother prouder of their offspring or fonder of proclaiming the fact. When not cumbered about much serving they squat either on the roof or on a blue gum tree hard by, and, at regular intervals, utter a short, sharp, harsh " Tshow." This is emphasised by a jerk of the tail; the blue jay does nothing without first consulting its caudal appendage.
On the occasions when I made vain attempts to obtain a look at the young birds the parents took to their wings, and, as they sped through the air, uttered cries so harsh and dry-sounding as to make me feel quite thirsty!
The blue jay is so familiar to us Anglo-Indians as to need no description. We have all admired the bird as it lazily sailed through the air on outstretched pinions of pale blue and rich ultramarine. We have, each of us, watched it perched on a railing looking out for its insect quarry. It is then comparatively inconspicuous, its neck and wing coverts being the hue of a faded port-wine stain. We have seen it pounce upon some object too small for us to distinguish, and either devour it then and there or bear it off in triumph.
We all know that the bird is not a jay at all, that its proper name is the Indian roller (Coracias indica), that it is related to the kingfisher family, and that it is called a jay merely on account of its gaudy plumage.
Next to its colour the most striking thing about the blue jay is its wonderful power of flight. Ordinarily the bird is content to flap along at an easy pace, but, when it likes, it can move for a little as though it were shot out of a catapult; moreover, it is able to completely change its course with startling rapidity; hence even the swiftest birds of prey find it no child's play to catch a roller bird. A good idea of its aerial performances may be obtained by watching it attack a kite that persists in hovering about in the neighbourhood of the nest. Blue jays, like king-crows and doves, are exceedingly short-tempered when they have young.
This species seems to indulge in very little sleep; it is up betimes, and may be seen about long after every other day bird, with the possible exception of the king-crow, is fast asleep.
The blue jay is a good friend to the gardener, since it feeds exclusively on insects and small animals. Jerdon cites as the chief articles of its diet, large insects, grasshoppers, crickets, mantidae, and beetles, with an occasional field-mouse or shrew. To this list he might have added frogs and small snakes.
At most seasons of the year the blue jay strikes one as a rather sluggish bird, being content to squat on a perch for a great part of the day and wait patiently for quarry to come its way. At the breeding season, however, it becomes very sprightly. It is then more than usually vociferous and indulges in a course of aerial gymnastics. It may be seen at these throughout the month of March, now towering high above the earth, then dropping headlong down, to suddenly check itself and sail away, emitting the while the hoarsest and wheeziest notes imaginable, and behaving generally like the proverbial March hare. These performances are either actual love-making or a prelude to it By the end of March the various birds have sorted themselves out, and then the billing and cooing stage begins.
At this season the birds are invariably found in pairs; the cock and hen delight to sit side by side on some exposed branch. Like the young couples that moon about Hyde Park on Sundays, blue jays do not mind spooning in public. As the sexes dress alike it is not possible to say which of a couple is the cock and which is the hen. Under such circumstances naturalists always assume that the bird which makes the advances is the cock. I am not at all sure that this assumption is justified. Among human beings the ladies very frequently set their caps at the men. Why should not the fair sex among birds do likewise ?
In many species the sexes dress differently, and it is then easy to discover which sex " makes the running," and in such cases this is by no means always the cock. I have seen one hen paradise flycatcher drive away another and then go and make up to a cock bird. Similarly I have seen two hen orioles behave in a very unladylike manner to one another, all because they both had designs on the same cock. He sat and looked on from a distance at the contest, and would assuredly have purred with delight had he known how to do so! But of this more anon. The blue-jay lovers sit on a branch, side by side, and gaze upon one another with enraptured eyes. Suddenly one of them betakes itself to some other tree, uttering its hoarse screeches as it flies. Its companion follows almost immediately and then begins to bow and scrape, puff out its neck, slowly wave its tail, and utter unmusical cries. The bird which is being thus courted adds its voice to that of its companion. The raucous duet over, silence reigns for a little. Then one of the birds moves on, to be followed by its companion, and the above performance is repeated, and will continue to be repeated dozens of times before the birds give themselves over to family cares.
The greatest admirer of the blue jay could not call its nest a work of art. The eggs are laid in a hole in a tree or building. Usually the hole is more or less lined by a promiscuous collection of grass, tow, feathers, and the like, but sometimes the birds are content to lay their eggs in the bare cavity.
The blue jay, although so brazen over its courtship, strongly objects to having its family affairs pried into, so if you would find its nursery you must, unless you are lucky, exercise some patience. The birds steadfastly refuse to visit the nest when they know they are being watched. If patience be a virtue great, the blue jay is a most virtuous bird, for, if it is aware that it is being observed, it will take up a perch and sit there for hours, mournfully croaking, rather than betray the whereabouts of its eggs or young. Most of the nests I have seen have been discovered by accident. For example, when going along a road I have had occasion to look round suddenly at some bird flying overhead and caught sight of a roller entering a hole in a tree.
Some days ago I was out with a friend, when we saw a hoopoe, with food in its mouth, disappear into a hole in the wall of a Hindu temple. The aperture was about seven feet from the ground, so, in order to look into it, I mounted my friend's back. While I was investigating the hoopoe's hole, a blue jay flew out of another hole in the wall within a yard of my face !
Like Moses of old, I turned aside to investigate this new wonder, and found that the hole went two and a half feet into the wall, and that its aperture was a square six inches in both length and breadth. The floor of this little alcove was covered with earth and tiny bits of dirty straw, which may or may not have been put there by the blue jay. On this lay a clutch of four glossy white eggs, nearly as large as those laid by the degenerate Indian murghi. Fortunately for those blue jays I am not an egg collector. As it was, I did remove one of them for a lady who was anxious to have it, but this was not missed. Birds cannot count.