By Sharon McInnes
Gabriola Island, BC
Since you’re reading this on BirdCanada, you’re probably already interested in birds. You might, like me, not only watch them but also go to some lengths to create a bird-friendly habitat in your back yard, complete with native flowers and fresh water and protection from prey.
You might also feed them. I do, in the fall and winter anyway. It’s the middle of September as I write this, and I recently started tossing a few handfuls of peanuts-in-the-shell to “our” seven Steller’s Jays every morning.
It’s fun to watch them fly in, squawk at each other, then carefully choose their peanuts, stuff one or two in their mouths, take them away to the garden or a faraway tree or the eaves of one of the sheds to squirrel them away for the winter.
It’s fun, that is, until a hawk shows up. That’s what happened today. I put the peanuts out, then stood at the patio door in my bathrobe, eating my bowl of granola and watching the jays swoop down for their morning peanut-hiding routine. One jay (the one with the brightest eyebrows) was on the table, busy weighing peanuts (gotta get the heaviest one!) when, in my peripheral vision, I noticed another bird in mid-swoop toward the table top.
My brain must have recognized something a little different about this particular motion because I immediately looked up – to see a hawk, probably a Cooper’s. Another jay and I reacted at the same time. I dropped my bowl of granola, waved my arms, and yelled like a madwoman; he flew down, his wings spread all the way out, crest high, squawking like crazy. The hawk veered off.
Unfortunately, it only went as far as the maple tree in the front yard, maybe twenty feet away, where it sat, watching.
The jays soon flew back down to the table with the peanuts. NOOOO! I flung all the peanuts onto the rattan patio chair, tossed a big pillow over them, then ordered the jays “Back in the trees!” They looked at me, quizzically, their little heads bent. NOW!! I flailed my arms, yelling so loudly that the yappy dog up the hill must have thought it was his signal to start his morning barking routine. They complied, though, headed for the backyard cedar tree, and sat among its branches.
Were they thinking I’d lost my mind? Wondering what happened to all that cootchy-cooing they usually get in the mornings?
This went on for half an hour, the jays staying in the trees (mostly) , the hawk staying in the maple tree (mostly), me ON GUARD (full-time) on the deck. When a jay would venture out, I’d yell and flail my arms. He’d scoot back. A few times the hawk changed trees, causing a whole new level of commotion. A few times, when a jay left the safety of the trees, the hawk glided down after him – always to the background music of my screeches and screams. These must have put his timing off because the jays always managed to escape – at least when I was watching. But eventually, I lost sight of the hawk and could no longer hear it (which means absolutely nothing, I realize) and it was time to get dressed and catch the ferry for a dentist appointment in Nanaimo. All the way there, I thought about what I was doing: putting the jays’ already precarious lives at risk by feeding them peanuts.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly fine with letting nature takes its course. Hawks need to eat too, obviously. But I don’t want to set a breakfast table that makes the jays easy pickin’s for a hungry predator. It’s a big picture dilemma, of course – the risks and benefits of feeding the birds.
I’d love to hear how you handle it. (Please share your ideas in the Comments section below.)