Talking to Birds

Talking to Birds
Published: Dec 19, 2021
In conversation with a feathered friend about styles of cohabitation, the author stumbles upon an equation comprising confidence and fear.

Blue Jay wing feathers, journal of wild culture ©2021

  Your blue feathers shimmer like waves beneath a changing sky . . . [o]


The first thing people will say is that you yell and bully. That you scare others away. you’re angry, and that you annoy and interrupt. They may also notice your grace of flight, your brilliant eyes, your perfectly coiffed crest. The black necklace draped over your snowy breast, the way your blue feathers shimmer like waves beneath a changing sky.

But what they remember most about you is this: When you yell, your entire body quakes. Sound erupts from your throat in bursts and squawks, shaking you from your feet to your head. Somehow, you don’t launch from your post, but instead, your feet hold onto their spot as your body jolts upward, standing your ground as you make your feelings known. You are a rocket, tethered.

One July day, I sat at a round table in my backyard garden, ready to eat my lunch. As I lifted my fork for my first bite, you blasted out from within the soft network of hemlock needles just behind me. I dropped my fork and my shoulders jumped to my ears as you screamed into the quiet. I looked around for the cause of your outburst, and only found myself. I didn’t mean to cause you discomfort, so I sat still as a garden statue, a songbird of stone. I sipped thin breaths, eyes alert to your every twitch.


I looked out the kitchen window now and then to see if you’d returned, anger forgotten.


Your screeches pierce the air and frighten, but there are warning signs that a blast is coming. The feathers on your head fan upward from flat to crested, a gauge indicating a rise in your temper, moving into the danger zone. Your quiet moments alternate with your bursts of sound.

I watched as you boomeranged to the neighbor’s yard and back to the hemlock where calm finally lowered your crest. Then you perched in a time signature all your own: something would move, your blue crest rose up, your voice erupted, then you rested again. Calm. Movement. Crest, sound, rest. Calm. Movement. Crest, sound, rest. After a few staccato measures, you flew away for a second time, leaving whatever angered you in the wake of your tail feathers. Probably me again. I tried to make it clear I wasn’t a threat, that I wouldn’t hurt you, but I should have known that you couldn’t understand. So many other people have caused you pain, either with intention or without.

You stayed away longer this time, so I took my plate of sun-wilted vegetables and went inside. I looked out the kitchen window now and then to see if you’d returned, anger forgotten. Sure enough, half an hour later, when I looked out with my binoculars, you’d returned to your tree, this time with seeds in your mouth. You were quiet now, nearly invisible because your silence renders you unseen. I watched as you hopped to a nest near the trunk. Your now-low crest and your silence were a lullaby, soothing your waiting chicks. You fed them with all the attention and care of a doting parent, your focus on the survival and well-being of your young.


Blue jay tail feathers, journal of wild culture ©2021

They heed your warning before you snap your beak and push them away. [o]


And yes, no matter what set you off, I do know that survival — of self and offspring — is what all that yelling was about. Every threat yanks a scream from your body. Squawks and jeers are your armor. They shield you from danger, deflect what threatens. The red-shouldered hawk hears itself in your mimicking cry and flaps away to another opportunity. Smaller songbirds heed your warning before you snap your beak and push them away. They give up the feeder to you, no questions asked. And since you only know humans to have the upper hand, you yell as much as you can. If your commotion doesn’t scare them away, at least you’ve distracted them from your fledglings and warned your family that invaders are close.

The problem is, your yelling masks the reasons behind it and becomes the only thing that people hear, the only thing they remember. Wouldn’t it be nice if they knew the other you? That when you are calm, you nurture. That you build your nest with your mate, the one you’ll be with for as long as you both shall live. That there are times when your longing whispers its way into the world with soft whines and clicks. That you’re not always the toughest bird at the feeder.

The common grackle easily intimidates you from your perch. The red-headed woodpecker has no trouble overtaking the feeder you’d hoped was yours. The grey squirrel bounds in, and you dart away, hungry. You’re not so tough. You just want us to think you are. Your sounds of confidence belie your fear. The yells preempt pain, the shrieks thwart tragedy.

Really, a Blue Jay is not a bully, but rather a survivor who knows what it is to feel threatened. Most will avoid you when you yell. And when you’re silent, nature’s soundscape fills with other notes. But I know you’re still there. I understand your cries. And as each summer comes, I wait for your whisper-song. ≈ç


Blue Jay by Jim Ridley© 2012, journal of wild culture ©2021


KIM HOFF is an environmental educator and writer who is currently working on a collection of nature essays. Her work has been seen in Mass Audubon's Explore!, 'The Writing Life' of the journal Grist, and Northern Woodlands Magazine. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her wife and two rescue cats.




Submitted by Pat Wilk (not verified) on Mon, 12/20/2021 - 09:41


What a interesting essay! Careful detail written form a place of deep understanding. I loved "hearing" all of the sounds. And it was interesting getting my stereotypes smashed. I'll observe more closely next time. The wonderful photography was a perfect pairing.

Pat Wilk
Mon, 12/20/2021 - 09:41

Submitted by Rebecca Weil (not verified) on Mon, 01/10/2022 - 16:44


Kim, this is a wonderful piece! Its a treat to view from many angles as you have in this writing. It is so easy to fall into stereotypes with birds or persons, or anything. This is a lovely reminder to drop that aside and see from other perspectives.

Rebecca Weil
Mon, 01/10/2022 - 16:44

Submitted by Lorri Cetto (not verified) on Fri, 11/03/2023 - 17:46


Thanks, Kim, I can almost hear the blue jay screeching in your descriptions. I never would have taken time to witness or even notice the quiet side of the jay. Your ability to capture in writing your perceptions are wonderful
to read. Now I am curious about other birds, too!

Lorri Cetto
Fri, 11/03/2023 - 17:46

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