On Sunday morning I heard a blue jay yelling outside my front window. It is common to hear jays yell as they fly through the neighborhood, but the frequency and persistence of this yell declared “danger!” even to my uneducated human ears. I stepped outside to find the jay jumping in circles in one of my trees. A closer inspection showed me the small screech owl who was the focus of the blue jay’s ire. I waved off the jay so that the owl could sleep in peace. The owl elected to move to a different tree. All was calm… until the jay found the owl again.
This set the pattern for the entire day, quiet, interrupted by a jay screaming, me stepping out to chase off the blue jay, followed by a period of quiet. The jay was persistent. He not only came back again and again, he also attempted to gather other birds and jays to help him mob the owl. Chickadees, juncos, and finches all showed up to yell at the owl. Mostly the owl hunkered down, not taking flight, and not offering any returning attacks, even when the jay pecked at is feet.
I don’t know that the owl needed me to chase off the other birds, but I felt like attempting to defend him was important. Owls move through the world so quietly that getting to observe one in my own garden felt like a minor miracle. Particularly since his roosting spot let me get within five feet of him. These pictures were taken with a basic cell phone, that’s how close I got, but I was careful to watch his body language and back off when he seemed nervous about me. It was this careful balance, close enough that the other birds flew away, not close enough to cause the owl to take flight. There were several long stretches mid-afternoon where no birds came to disturb the peace.
When I talked about owl sitting on twitter, there was a side conversation about how blue jays can be real jerks. I suppose that is one interpretation of the jay’s behavior. Except, the jay was not wrong. The owl, even a small one, is a predator who will absolutely kill and eat other birds. Once night fell, the owl would have the advantage. During the day, with a crowd of birds, the day birds had a chance to drive the owl away from their territory. The entire nature play between the owl and the birds was each feathered creature following their instincts. When dark fell, the owl took off and I’m not likely to ever see him again.
I have one set of thoughts where I identify with the owl hunkered down in a place that was only sort of safe while bird around him yelled at him or pecked at his toes. I can draw parallels to social media experiences or pandemic. There is another set of thoughts about the birds who banded together to try to chase away a threat to their lives by grouping up and yelling about it, which feels parallel to protests and community actions I’ve seen in recent months. The blue jay was a leader / instigator, but all the birds played a part, and if they’d managed to get the owl to take flight, they could have driven him far away. As it is, he isn’t likely to pick my trees for his daytime roost again. I hold all of these thoughts loosely.
Mostly I look at the beautiful pictures of the owl and think about what a miracle he is. Look that those ear tufts! and those feet! I marvel that something so small could be alive. He flies about the world taking care of himself while I’m unaware. The world is full of such feathered miracles. The jays, chickadees, juncos, finches, and sparrows are all miracles too. My world is full of wonder, and I’m glad I got to see some of it up close for a day.