Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Blue Jay named Sammy

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):

Burgess Books 20141122

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 Book Sammy Jay

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. 

Burgess Book Sammy Jay Contents

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:

Burgess Book Sammy Jay Illustration

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.

Burgess Bird Book Sammy Jay Illustration

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.

Gray Squirrel eating cocoplum 20121231

Blue Jays can carry as many as 5 acorns in their mouth and upper esophagus, their "gular pouch:"

Blue Jay 2-20121205

Blue Jay with acorns 20141028

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 HawkInterestingly, 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:

Blue Jay on Royal Palm 20140127

Blue Jay 2-20130211

Blue Jay 20141118

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. 

Blue Jay 20130920

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.   

Blue Jay 20110131

Blue Jay portrait 2-20121021

More of my Blue Jay photos may be seen in this earlier post.

REPRINT OF "SAMMY JAY" may be available at this link


  1. what a neat set of story books. :) love the loud-mouthed jays. :)

  2. Blue Jay's are a pleasure to watch. unfortunately a lot of our fir trees here have been cut down so we don't have too many Blue Jays around anymore.

  3. HI Kenneth it was truly lovely reading this post and learning how your love of nature started and was encouraged both by your Dad and these many books. these stories sound really special and I am sure I would have loved them also. as you know we do have Jay but not the Blue Jay. I have to say that the Blue Jay out shines our Jay and your photographs of it are stunning. Many thanks for sharing with us.

  4. I had a bunch of those Burgess books, and loved the stories from the Green Forest! Brings back great memories.

  5. What a majestic bird the blue jay is!!!
    And I love your collection of books on the subject too.

    But...wait...I do hope you don't collect snakes any longer. I hate snakes. A huge phobia.

    Thanks for sharing your link here this weekend!! Have a happy week ahead.

  6. Another beautiful collection of shots, Kenneth

  7. Lovely post! Two of my great loves are featured....birding and children's literature. Well three really, because I have lovely memories of read.aloud stories ... As listener and then reader to (now) three generations. My great.grandson told me this fall "you sound just like my grandma." Hi told him I used to read the same story to his grandma!

  8. Such a gorgeous bird and lovely images.

  9. I'm always surprised at how many nuts a Jay can store in their throat. Beautiful birds. And I love those kinds of books!

  10. Thanks for sharing your memories and the interesting links with this member of the Jay family.

  11. Great post on the Blue Jay! And awesome photos.. I have heard them calling like a hawk, they are great at imitating.. enjoy your week!

  12. Great post. I wonder what books that my kids have will still be on their shelves in X(?) years?

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  13. I love this post, Kenneth. What wonderful stories to read and reread and I love the illustrations.
    Here, I've seen those clever Blue Jays use their mimicry to scare other birds away from the feeders so they can have them all to themselves.

  14. I was never made familiar with these wonderful children's books. I know I would have loved them, and shared them with my daughter and grandson had I known. I have always loved blue jays and I see your close relationship with them has been a long and loving one. This was one of the sweetest posts I have read in quite a while!


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