Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay


Cold. A little snow. The cottontail is out between flurries, nibbling on the pale grass. She looks up when I turn the car down the drive, with an expression that can only be described as woeful. Someone on Facebook, of course, will be summiting a mountain; a friend will post a picture with people you don’t recognize from a mall in the midwest, beaming. Their cheeks, like those of the mountaineer, are ruddy from wind or booze (you suspect, at least in the case of the mall hoppers, it is both). But the truth is that in the late fall or winter you only survive days like these: flat, mirthless skies and creeping cold. The rabbit and a lone Steller’s Jay in a pine — who could very well be enjoying this, jays being especially contrarian — are the animal kingdom’s only emissaries.

When you live in the high plains, in any season, you have to be prepared for things to go missing in the night. It’s like an M. Night Shyamalan movie: something is killing the sheep, but no one has seen it, and we don’t know what it is. Admittedly, it’s mostly plants, and only parts of them go missing. I left a red oak sapling out on the deck. (Red oaks grow slowly. This was two years old, a stem hardly thicker than an electrical cord but with disproportionally large leaves, doing well.) Several of the leaves were missing by the morning, their little twigs cut, surgically, below the joint. I placed an Aztec Marigold, one of only a few that had flowered from seed, out by the front door. They are toxic to cats and it was still September. It would greet me on the threshold, a deep-gold fist of flower. Gone several days after, cut clean in the night, the green stem still erect and bewildered.

I assumed it was the jays. We are fortunate, or not, to have three kinds here: the Steller’s Jays, ranging up through the mountains into British Columbia and down along the California coast; the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), which as year-round residents are largely eastern birds, but which overlap with the Steller’s where plains meet the mountains; and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays. Of the three, the Woodhouse’s are by far the most common, and then the Steller’s Jays, and then the Blue Jays, making rare annual appearances. (I group them all together, but only the Steller’s & the Blue Jays belong in the genus Cyanocitta. Aphelocoma woodhouseii woodhouseii, the Woodhouse’s, belong to quite another group.) They are bold birds. In the spring, the scrub-jays spend the mornings on the ridge of the roof or along the deck railings, where they pick at and plunder coconut fibers from the window boxes. If you clean up the garden and leave grasses or dry stems in the wheelbarrow, they’ll be at that, too, before you turn around, poking into the pile with strong, sharp beaks. So they were on the shortlist for plant vandalism, no question.

But then, every so often, the cats would become agitated in the evening and jump up on the windowsills, tails puffed out, hissing or leaping from one window to the next as though following an intruder. In the end, I turned a flashlight on the bushes out back, and there was a rapid thrashing in the undergrowth and a metallic clank! as legs caught on the downspout. I still don’t know what it was, but if it was a scrub-jay we’re in trouble. Deer perhaps.

The Arbor Day Foundation sent me eight bare root trees last week, and as usual I was unprepared for them. I had to get them in the ground before it froze, so I quickly dug into the flower bed where the daylilies had been, the earth rocky but damp with melted snow. There was a Blue Spruce and a White Pine, and several maple saplings. My hiking shoes got caked with mud, but the plants were installed well enough to last the winter, and I left the shoes on the welcome mat outside (twenty-seven years of marriage apparently haven’t earned me the right to track dirt through the house).

Shortly after sunrise the next day I went to check on the young trees. They’d made it through the night. Perhaps the deer would leave them alone until I had managed to cover them properly on the weekend. I grabbed my shoes on the way back to the house, feeling a sense of pride and progress. But as I shook the crust of mud from the hiking boots, clapping them sharply together over the railing, those feelings vanished. The laces of the left shoe had been cropped off, equally short, cut so cleanly they could have been trimmed with a knife.

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