The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.
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7 thoughts on “The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

  1. I hear blue jays all the time, more often than I see them. And when I do see them, I’m continually surprised by how large they are! But I like their brashness. Of course, they are related to crows…(K)

    1. They do tend to be very vocal and, yes, brash—rarely intimidated by other birds or squirrels. One day when I went out to work in the yard, the jays were the first birds to start calling. They can be a little noisy if there’s a lot of them. Still, they are enjoy to watch at the feeders.

  2. Thoroughly fascinating, especially their diabolical lore… I agree with Kerfe that their attitude is more endearing to me than annoying; there’s no ignoring a jay! Out west there is a Steller’s Jay which also has a “distinctive pump-handle call” but it is also a gifted mimic; they’re known for impersonating hawks to scare away other birds from a choice feeding site, clever corvids!

    1. Jays, like their corvid “cousins,” have a lot of mojo. I agree, their clever attitude and charismatic calls are appealing. It’s a shame that humans don’t seem to give them much respect. Overall, they’re immensely underrated. But I like underdogs!

  3. Well, I live in the south, and I love bluejays, although I know plenty of people they annoy, and who would prefer they never show up at a feeder. Me? I’m the one who puts out peanuts in the shell (pigeons vaccum up shelled peanuts) and shelled pecans specifically for the bluejays. For three years now, I’ve enjoyed watching parents fly back and forth carrying food to their nestlings, and the first appearance of those comically-feathered youngsters at the feeders.

    It’s only been a few years ago that I first heard that “other” call of the jay. Most people don’t associate them with musical calls, but they have quite a variety. Thanks to the Audubon site, I can identify them now, and I always enjoy them.

    1. I don’t think blue jays are reviled as they have been in the past. Personally, I like them. That their shrieking calls irritate some folks is understandable. But I don’t mind. They started calling out early this morning when I walked outside. I didn’t see them, but I heard them. Though we have suet and several kinds of seeds available for our winged neighbors, the blue jays here seem to prefer the sunflower seeds. Our pecan tree is also a big draw—for both the jays and squirrels.

  4. I enjoyed the b+w movie with Peck as Atticus, my kinda guy. And I’d like to think he thought the boys wouldn’t be able to hit them ‘cos they got away too fast! 😱 As to the pump-handle vocals, sounds a bit like our wattlebird that often sounds like a rusty creaky paddock gate! Love your wife’s doodle.

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