Bald Is Beautiful

Blue jay. Photo by M. Burgess.

Ever since I read Julie Zickefoose’s latest book, Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay, I have had a soft spot for blue jays, a bird some folks find hard to love due to their noisy and aggressive nature. In the book, which recounts the summer she spent rehabilitating Jemima (while at the same time Jemima in many ways rehabilitated Julie’s own battered heart), Julie discusses how she is able to pick Jemima out of a crowd of jays.

In fact, Julie is able to identify many of the individual jays that visit her yard. The final chapter of Saving Jemima delves into how, with the help of her camera, she separates their features to help her distinguish individuals.

Author, artist, and naturalist Julie Zickefoose with Jemima the blue jay. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

I had the opportunity to attempt to study blue jays up close this summer, when I started offering peanuts in-the-shell to my backyard visitors and soon found myself in the company of a large number of jays. I initially put out the peanuts to keep a family of crows returning—I dream of becoming one of those lucky folks who are gifted a shiny bauble from a crow. Alas, no trinkets have been gifted yet, but the crows keep coming, and so do the blue jays. And they have turned out to be a gift of a different kind.

The jays caught on quick to my offerings, and now every morning when I step outside, at least one jay alerts the others, and in they swoop—about a dozen regularly visit now. They watch from their various vantage points as I fill all the feeders, and then before I even have the door closed behind me, they are diving in for the peanuts scattered on the ground.

I ascend to my balcony—my warm-weather office—to start my workday, and they visit me there, too, always announcing their arrival as they land on the railing feeder to partake in the shelled peanuts I put out to attract nuthatches and titmice.

And I’ve tried to distinguish these visitors, really I have… but my eye for detail as an editor doesn’t necessarily translate to picking out the subtle differences in birds’ brows, bibs, and flanks like Julie’s keen, experienced eye does. But one day I noticed something different about one of them… it was bald! Now that is a distinguisher even my unskilled eye can pick up!

Every summer, we discuss bald birds in one of our media outlets here at BWD, as we inevitably get questions from readers wondering about the weird-looking cardinal or blue jay that shows up at their feeder. The short of it is that this is a normal and healthy phenomenon, where the birds lose all their head feathers at once, instead of a few feathers at a time like most birds do in a normal seasonal molt.

Cardinals and blue jays in particular experience this more drastic “catastrophic molt,” but again, this is nothing to be concerned about, and a full head of feathers will be back in place within a month or so.

Bald blue jay. Photo by Thcipriani / Wikimedia.

But for as much as I’ve written about bald birds, I’d never seen one before until a couple weeks ago. And now this individual seems to always be around, and I am getting nice long looks at it—and my first looks at a bird’s ear hole! Who knew?

I mean, of course birds have ears, too, just not external ones like us mammals. But how much have you ever really thought about that before? I certainly hadn’t.

Close-up of the bird’s head with ear hole. Photo by Thcipriani / Wikimedia.

Birds’ ears are located slightly behind and below their eyes, and normally the holes are covered by small, soft feathers that temper wind noise. (Important for a flying bird, not so much for a land-based mammal!) A 2014 study conducted by German researchers determined that it is the unique oval shape of a bird’s head coupled with the placement of its eyes, which provides a nearly 360-degree field of view, that allow a bird to determine whether a sound is coming from above, below, or at level with the bird.

I’ll be honest, the academic report of the study strings together a lot of big words I don’t necessarily understand, but needless to say, birds’ inner ear workings are obviously remarkable and critical for survival, keeping them alert to predators and of course assisting in finding mates and thereby securing the survival of their species.

Now that I have one individual bird to focus on, I am trying to study its other features, determine what makes it unique so that when its head is fully covered again, I might be able to pick it out of a crowd. I’m not confident I will succeed at this, but it is a fun exercise in observation, and has been an enjoyable distraction during the late-summer dog days when the feeders are generally pretty quiet.

Yes, jays are loud. A flock that has chosen your yard for their territory will yell back and forth at each other all day, almost drowning you out if you sit outside to talk to co-workers on Zoom meetings. (Good thing I work for a bird magazine!) They are mimics and regularly trick me with their almost-but-not quite red-shouldered hawk calls, among many others.

But as Julie wrote in my copy of Saving Jemima, “jays = joy,” and this little bald jay of mine and its cohorts have been a steady source of joy this summer, and my appreciation for them continues to grow the more time I spend in their company.

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