I can thank my dear late Father for opening my eyes to the beauty of the natural world. Not that Mom didn't help, putting up with my collections of snakes, frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, white mice, hamsters and even praying mantises (I used to gather their egg cases and keep them inside all winter so that I could relocate them to our yard and watch them hatch in the spring-- but once I forgot then in the attic and this post A Buggy Rent House tells of the consequences). Mom never let me have a dog or cat, as we had the benefit of our grandparents' dogs next door. Ironically, as soon as the last of my four siblings left home she herself got her first dog!
But back to Dad... A very nice neighbor, who knew of my interest in nature, gave him her entire set of Bedtime Story-Books (Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1915) by Thornton W. Burgess (1874-1965) just when I was at an age to best appreciate them.
Dad would read the books to me at bedtime, and I fought sleep to hear the adventures of all the creatures of the Green Forest-- Danny Meadow Mouse, Peter Rabbit, Grandfather Frog, Reddy Fox, Prickly Porky the Porcupine, Jimmy Skunk, Billy Muskrat... I heard their stories over and over again, and even after I learned to read I asked Dad to read them to me. Later I would read them to my younger siblings, my children and, more recently, to my grandchildren.
They were like new when we received them around 1938. My parents subsequently gave me three larger editions of Burgess's works (to the left in this photo):
One of my favorite characters was Sammy Jay, a crafty and conniving creature who warned the other inhabitants of the Green Forest of danger, but more often loved playing tricks such as raiding their food stores or scaring them with false alarms. This book was one of the 170 books and 15,000 stories that Burgess would write in his lifetime.
Burgess also wove many moral and ethical lessons into his simple prose. Dad (and later, I) would stop the narrative to reinforce them to the listener.
Here Sammy retaliates when Chatterer the Red Squirrel calls him a thief for stealing his acorns. After spying and finding that Chatterer took some corn from Farmer Brown's shed, Sammy then threatens to send Shadow the Weasel after him, frightening the poor squirrel into submission, asking, "Am I any more of a thief than you are?" Chatterer's answer:
Of all the colorful characters in the Burgess stories, I found it much easier to relate to Sammy Jay. Blue Jays were very conspicuous in my neighborhood. I remember finding one of their nests in a tree just outside an upstairs windows, and watching the progress of the young birds from helpless pink hatchlings to little short-tailed cartoon caricatures of their parents.
The Burgess Bird Book for Children (Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1919) expanded stories about the birds included in the Bedtime Story-Books, but they were illustrated much more realistically by the wonderful art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1974-1927). Here I saw the real Sammy Jay as I grew to know him.
Indeed, I witnessed the animus between Blue Jays and squirrels, and remember seeing a jay follow a squirrel as it buried acorns in our lawn and unearthing them as soon as the squirrel departed. I have seen this drama repeated many times since. Survival trumps ethics in the real world of nature.
Blue Jays can carry as many as 5 acorns in their mouth and upper esophagus, their "gular pouch:"
As a kid, I noticed that Blue Jays had a great variety of calls, running the gamut from a bell-like whistle to harsh screams. They are also good mimics. They could give an almost perfect imitation of a Red-tailed Hawk. Interestingly, here in Florida they commonly mimic the call of a Red-shouldered Hawk, a species that is very common here. I never heard one give this call back in New Jersey, where Red-shouldered Hawks had a more restricted range.
Common as they are, Blue Jays are nonetheless uncommonly beautiful:
Most activities in nature have some meaning, as wild creatures generally do not expend energy on something that does not have survival value. Many times I have found an owl or a hawk, or even an eagle simply by following the sound of a flock of excited Blue Jays. Presumably, they are alerting other birds of the presence of the predator, just as they do when I venture into their territory.
This makes me wonder why jays may become excited and call in a mob when no threat is evident. Perhaps I am just not seeing or appreciating the cause, and must speculate whether they are just wasting energy or perhaps conducting a "drill" to get to know their neighbors or to improve their ability to gather in times of danger.
More of my Blue Jay photos may be seen in this earlier post.
REPRINT OF "SAMMY JAY" may be available at this link