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January 8, 2017

Several weeks before Christmas, I was helping our grandson with a Boy Scout requirement. He had to identify eight birds in the wild by sight or by their song. I decided that we should go for the easy ones at first; mockingbird, Carolina wren, crow, cardinal, downy woodpecker, blue jay. In our backyard we watched seed feeders and suet feeders until the required number of eight had been reached. We listened for bird songs in the surrounding woods. After several hours of watching and listening, I realized we had not identified a blue jay.

The absence of the raucous blue jays from our backyard surprised me. Then I realized that it had been several weeks or even months since I had seen the distinctive blue bird with white and black markings. Blue jays use to be plentiful on our one-acre plot. Where had they gone?

I did a Google search. Where have all the blue jays gone?

A reader of the Greenville News had written, “I haven’t seen a blue jay in at least the past two years. What’s going on?”

The answer was concise. “Regionally, there’s no evidence the abundant blue jays have gone anywhere. Individual yards may be a different story. Birds do move around, and thus it occasionally happens that a species may disappear temporarily from a small area,” said Kent Fiala with the Carolina Bird Club. “People sometimes extrapolate such an occurrence to a larger area than is justified,” he said.

Local data from bird counts shows an abundance of blue jay sightings around the Upstate of South Carolina for the past several years, with no substantial differences noted between the years. Sightings of blue jays have been reported recently at Paris Mountain State Park, Furman University, and Lake Conestee Nature Park, all popular birding spots around Greenville. Reports specifically from Lake Conestee Nature Park reflect an abundance of blue jays year-round for the past three years. The brightly colored, loud birds have a wide range, living year-round in the entire eastern half of the United States and throughout much of Canada.

Blue jays have the reputation for being aggressive, nest-robbing birds. But blue jays are predominantly vegetarian in their diet. They are particularly fond of acorns, pecans, and other nuts. The birds have been credited with helping to spread oak trees.

Another question popped up from my Google search.

“Why have my backyard blue jays disappeared?”

The answer was again helpful. “Blue jays tend to be noisy birds until nesting season, when they become incredibly silent and secretive. If fact, they’re so secretive that they hide their nests in a dense evergreen, and vary their route when they leave and enter. It’s fascinating to watch a blue jay bringing food to its nestlings. It will first land in a nearby tree, then on a shrub, then fly low into the evergreen that houses its nest, leaping from branch to branch as a stairway to reach the nest. It does all of this to throw off any predators that might be watching.”

Predators! That may be the reason I haven’t seen or heard many blue jays in a while. We have Stormy, a garden cat, and she has feral cousins who make frequent forays into our backyard. Smart blue jays are likely to avoid these feline predators.

Blue jays do not enjoy the best reputation in the world of ornithology.  Legend says that on Fridays this raucous bird carries sticks to the Devil to keep the fires of Hell stoked.

Sally Middleton, a North Carolina artist who specializes in wildlife paintings, gave me a different perspective on the blue jay.  When I first became familiar with her work, I noticed that she included a single blue jay feather in almost all of her paintings.  I knew that there must be a story behind this pattern in her work.  Why, I wondered, was Sally Middleton so consistent in including a blue jay feather in her paintings?

I later learned the story.  One gray day, burdened with family problems and financial concerns, Sally Middleton took a walk in the woods near Asheville, North Carolina.  As she walked, a blue jay feather floated down in front of her.  She caught it in her hand and took it as a gift of grace.  From that day on, the blue jay feather was her very own personal symbol of hope.

I have told the story many times.  I mailed to Sally Middleton a copy of a sermon in which I used her story as an illustration.  Her kind response was that the blue jay feather had become a source of hope for many others who treasure her paintings.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a funeral service for a young man who died in a drowning accident during the first month of his senior year in high school.  His death, of course, was very difficult for his family, especially for his parents.  The funeral service was at a Methodist church filled to overflowing with teenagers, parents, and teachers, as well as family friends.  The body was cremated for the committal at a camp where this young man had spent several happy summers.

The committal service was for family and a few close friends only.  I was invited to travel to the camp to lead the service at a beautiful spot beside the lake.  I had been trying to think of a symbol of hope for the parents and siblings of the young man.  As I walked along a path through the woods, I found one blue jay feather and then another.  Picking up both feathers, I put them in my Bible.  When we arrived at the burial site, a shovel with a stirrup handle had been pushed into the ground behind the simple wood and brass urn containing the ashes.  The shovel stood like a marker above the place of interment.

At the gravesite, I read scripture and shared the story of Sally Middleton.  I gave both the father and the mother one of the blue jay feathers, suggesting that they might become for them signs of hope.  We had a closing prayer including the words of committal.  Just as I concluded the prayer, a blue jay squawked, flew through the circle of those gathered, and perched on the handle of the shovel just above the urn.  The audible gasp in unison of the assembled mourners gave way to a holy silence.  No one made a sound, not even the blue jay.  It was a singular moment of quiet reverence.

Later in the week the young man’s mother returned to the camp to place flowers on her son’s grave.  As she stood weeping with a friend, she was astonished when a blue jay landed on her shoulder.  The bird flew away after a moment or two.

The Camp Ranger gave a logical explanation for the blue jay’s behavior.  During the summer, the camp staff had fed peanuts to the blue jay training him to perch on their shoulders.  When the camping season ended, the blue jay, unafraid of humans, continued to beg for peanuts whenever they visited his domain.  For those parents, the reasonable explanation did nothing to diminish the blue jay as a symbol of hope.

Emily Dickinson wrote:

“Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul.”

So it is. The gifts of God come to us in a variety of ways, sometimes as a bright blue bird with black and white markings emitting a distinctive squawk. And wouldn’t you know, just as I was finishing this column, a blue jay appeared at our seed feeder just outside my window.

The bird is a gift, a symbol of hope.

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