Day 169: Next newsletter goes out tomorrow; meanwhile, a ruckus

Issue 13 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the last one. Thank you for reading.

Photo by Faye Cornish

Ruckus at the feeder

They announce themselves before they swoop. From up in the trees, one or two or three trumpet a piercing fanfare that sounds like an angry hawk, which some ornithologists believe is no accident. Then they dive to ground around the feeder. Blue jays go in a straight line like a bullet, flaring wing feathers as they land. They seem never alone. The first one appears and in an instant there are five, six, eight; the most I have counted under the feeder at one time is 12. They have large vocabularies and a gift for mimicry, which I suppose is handy when dinner for ten convenes. Captive jays have been known to torment the cat by learning how to meow.

The pigment in the feathers of blue jays is melanin, and melanin is brown. So…then…. Quite the optical trick, it turns out. Their feathers have barbs and the barbs have cells on their surface that scatter light; we see the scatter as blue. Jays have crested heads. Drawings and sports mascots always show the crests at full flare, but as the birds hop about picking seeds out of the grass, they wear their crests flat against their heads, creating blue tonsures that, in some light, are the same blue as the headscarf worn by Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring. Naturalists regard a flattened crest as a sign of low aggression, and I notice that if there are doves or cardinals or squirrels already on the ground, the jays leave them alone. Plenty for all. Despite their reputation for pushiness, jays are frequently bullied off feeding trays by woodpeckers and grackles.

They usually partner for life. About 20 percent migrate, the rest stay home, where they work as foresters. Ornithologists once tracked a half-dozen with radio collars and observed that in a single autumn each cached 3,000 to 5,000 acorns. They did not remember all those caches, so a lot of oak trees got their start from those half-dozen jays. They carry acorns in their upper throats, as many as five at a time, which seems to me like a human coming home with five oranges stuffed in his mouth. Don’t try that—use a hemp bag instead.

They come in varieties: Steller’s jays, pinyon jays, Mexican jays, Canada jays, and various scrub jays labeled Florida, California, and Woodhouse. The extended family includes magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, and green jays, which look like someone grafted a blue jay’s head on a canary’s body.

Suburban folklore casts them as thieves and predators. They will raid nests for eggs and nestlings, but one study of 530 jays found traces of either in just six. Still, one summer evening when I was a boy, my father pointed out a jay in our apple tree that had pinned a sparrow to a branch and was stabbing it over and over again. Sparrowcide. After the jay fled, we examined the crime scene and found the sparrow’s body minus its head.

Before they eat ants, jays will rub the insects on their feathers. This may be to rub off formic acid and improve the gustatory experience.

They may have problems being fully in the moment. In 2000, Dukas and Kamil published a paper, “The Cost of Limited Attention in Blue Jays,” in Behavioral Ecology. I quote: “Consider a blue jay perching on a tree trunk and directing its gaze toward the bark in search for cryptic insects. The blue jay has the visual ability to simultaneously detect approaching predators while foraging, but such detection may be hindered due to limited attention, at least when the foraging task is difficult and attention-demanding.” To me, this is obvious. What else commands attention like a cryptic insect?

The term of venery for larks is widely known, for some reason: an exaltation of larks. Generic birds flock, but a flock of doves is a dole, of crows is a murder, and of goldfinches is a charm. (That’s lovely, isn’t it? A charm of goldfinches.) The term of venery for blue jays is a scold, and that’s good, but I propose something better—a ruckus. A ruckus of jays.

Out back, a spring rain has eased. From the trees sounds the clarion and they come again, their feathers scattering light as their beaks unscatter sunflower seeds.

Day 42: Reading with the spine

The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds—literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides—like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.

Vladimir Nabokov advised something to the effect of reading fine prose with the spine. I think what he meant was that when you were reading well, when you were fully attentive and in the hands of a master, you will come upon sentences and paragraphs that will not just lodge in your mind but send voltage up your backbone.

Last night I was reading Brian Phillips' essay collection Impossible Owls. It's brilliant. The quoted passage above is from "Man-eaters," a piece about his experience observing wild tigers in India. When I read this paragraph the volts came and I thought Oh damn, is that good... Descriptive prose worthy of Barry Lopez, to whom there's no higher compariaon.

The paragraph before that one is almost as good. Savor.

I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.


Read Phillips' entire essay here, published by The Ringer.