Shame on you, Atticus Finch!
Or, the doctor will not abide slander of the jay
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Excuse me, Harper Lee? Dr Essai will not abide slander of the magnificent jay. He shudders to think how close we came to millions of American schoolchildren forced to read a novel titled Shoot All the Blue Jays You Want. Horrendous.
The blue jay is a magnificent bird, the punk rocker of the feeder with its crest of blue feathers standing straight up on its head, brash and raucous as it takes the stage, loud as the Ramones, loud as a working-class picnic on Labor Day, loud as the crows they are related to, smart like all corvids, planters of oak and beech forests through the stashing of acorns, flippant vocal imitators of red-shouldered hawks. Who can’t harbor at least grudging respect for a songbird raising a middle finger to a predator? Would a mockingbird do that? One suspects not, smug little elitists ruffling no feathers with their tired classic rock repertoire. Blue jays also imitate cats, which is even more punk than razzing the raptors.
Regarding raptors, last summer the doctor spotted a Cooper’s hawk on a low branch, acting strange. It was tensed, coiled, slowly swaying and extending itself like a cat about to spring. The doctor glanced to its left and saw the explanation: a jay perched a mere yard away, all too aware that it had been chosen as an entree. The jay swayed slowly in sync with the hawk, in no frenzy of escape but calibrating acceleration and turning radius and reaction time before it leapt off the branch and darted inside the hawk’s lunge, leaving the raptor to grasp at air as it vanished like a doused light. A mockingbird would have been lunch.
Blue jays are monogamous, and monomorphic—the females on equal footing with the males in plumage. Strike a blow for gender equality. Lurid cardinals need pigment for their scarlet displays, as painted as 17th-century harlots. The jay is a light bender, its feathers refracting the sun’s photons to make its brilliant blues, a swirling, soaring physics lesson on the wing. They sometimes collect paint chips; ornithologists say it’s because the paint contains calcium, but the doctor believes they have an appreciation for color, an avian aesthetic sensibility.
Yes, there was that summer day many years ago when a young Dr Essai watched a jay behead a sparrow in an apple tree. But he has always assumed the sparrow had it coming.
The doctor shall leave the last word to James Wright:
In a pine tree, / A few yards from my window sill, / A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down, / On a branch. / I laugh, as I see him abandon himself / To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do / That the branch will not break.