Seven Steller’s Jays and a Hungry Hawk

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.

Steller's Jays at favourite bird bath.

Steller’s Jays at favourite bird bath

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.

Waiting for breakfast

Waiting for breakfast

The morning banquet

The morning banquet

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.

One jay, one mouth, two peanuts.

One jay, one mouth, two peanuts.

First, I'll crack open one to eat right now.

First, I’ll crack open one to eat right now.

Then I'll poke one into the garden with this twig.

Then I’ll poke one into the garden with this twig.

There - that's got it!

There – that’s got it!

Then a little dessert: leftover suet that falls onto ground when Flicker eats.

Then a little dessert: leftover suet that falls onto ground when Flicker eats.

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.

Mr. Big Blue Brows

Mr. Big Blue Brows

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.

Cooper's Hawk. (Public Domain image.)

Cooper’s Hawk. (Public Domain image.)

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.

Jay in a tree - waiting for further instructions?

Jay in a tree – waiting for further instructions?

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.

Bushy beard Jay

Bushy beard Jay

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.)


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4 Responses to Seven Steller’s Jays and a Hungry Hawk

  1. Thanks Darlene, Meg, and Sheila. Good to know I’m not alone with the dilemma. A friend of mine commented to me that the desire to not SEE a jay being eaten by a hawk is similar to the human desire to not see what’s happening in countries at war, i.e. it feeds our denial. I suppose that’s true, in part, at least. BUT I STILL DON’T WANT TO WATCH!

  2. Sheila Haniszewska says:

    I have been feeding peanuts to the glorious Stellars jays here on Gabriola as well, doing it for about 8 years now.. and I have supplied many generations by now , I think. Last year, I was wondering why one particular jay was motionless and very quiet in the cedar tree where they hang out, just beyond my deck railing where the peanuts are, and peering closer I noticed.. oh no.. an owl,, a huge dark shape who was probably inches from the jay… I think the jay was motionless , and planned to stay in there with the owl literally breathing down his neck, because, I figure, that an owl couldn’t grab him/her at such tight quarters…. and yes.. I yelled and screamed and the owl , surely disappointed, floated grandly out of the tree and the jay was liberated! I now have a problem with a couple of rascally neighbourhood cats and I too spend time early in the am… jumping and hollering .. I love cats,,, I don’t have one.. but I wish they would focus on the mice… I did see one dead jay just yesterday, the first I have ever seen near my peanut station, and I was heartbroken… I don’t know what killed him. The dilemma.. peanuts or no peanuts… but watching these brilliant birds in their magical blue is a very joyful thing… Why are they soo blue? so vivid, so almost tropical looking ? must be a reason

  3. Very interesting photos and story. I think we have all been that situation at some point. You want to help and you want a relationship but then you find yourself to involved! I like the image of you running around squacking and waving your arms! If the jays did not figure it out after that point they are on their own.

  4. Darlene says:

    You’re lucky you were able to discourage the hawk. Usually, once a Cooper’s hawk gets locked on to their prey, there’s no discouraging them. It looks like a juvenile, so that might be why it could be distracted.

    I’m with you, I accept that the hawks need to eat, but they don’t have to do it right at that moment while I’m standing there.