Bluebirds are Free
Lessons about Equality and Respect in Relationships
taught by a Scrub Jay

by Douglas Dunn

Copyright (c) 1999, 2000 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

Shortly after I moved into a newly-purchased home in Oceanside, California, in 1991, I was enjoying our back yard garden and saw a pair of bluebirds in the bushes. Okay, they were not actually true bluebirds (Eastern, Sialia sialis; Western, Sialia mexicana; or Mountain, Sialia currocoides); really they were California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica), but they were birds and their color was blue so I called 'em bluebirds and the nickname stuck.

Bluebirds from the Past. Quickly my thoughts returned to my late teen years. After keeping parakeets and pigeons during my early teen years, by the time I was in high school and college, busily distracted in studies, work and social life, I stumbled across an alternative that required less day-to-day responsibility than keeping birds as household pets.

While in college, I observed wild scrub jays perched in the trees and sitting on the phone lines around my house. Each morning when I left, and each evening when I returned, I would throw a handful of peanuts on the back yard lawn, and the bluebirds would swoop down for the free feast as soon as I closed the sliding glass door. This allowed me to surround myself with birds without the mandatory responsibilities.

One day I waited in the open doorway after throwing the peanuts onto the lawn. With some hesitation, the birds fluttered down and took the peanuts. Eventually I closed the door and remained out on the lawn with them and, little by little, I moved closer to where they picked up their free goodies, until I was very near them.

Finally, I sat on the ground and held the peanuts in my hand, low enough so they could safely snatch the peanuts from the ground. At this they balked mightily, but eventually one of them tried it and was rewarded with her usual treat. [As I would learn in later years, it is the female scrub jays that learn to take treats from the hand, because males offer such treats to females during their courtship, so the females become receptive to such offerings while the males perceive those who make such offers as rivals.] I gradually raised my hand higher and higher until she had to alight on my hand to get her freebie.

This was too much for most of the birds. But one individual would come and sit comfortably on my hand, taking as long as necessary to cram two peanuts into her beak.

As time passed, she would sit in the tree or overhead phone lines and, when she saw me coming, would swoop down and, at the last instant, tilt back and alight ever so gently upon my open palm.

The author in 1972 holding his "bluebird buddy"

She even learned to take peanuts from inside my mouth, though would do so quickly instead of lingering as she did on my hand. Imagine the trust required to put her tiny body inside the mouth of a monster-sized being like me -- that's really working for peanuts! [Note: I did this some thirty years ago, but would not consider that today for reasons of health -- for both myself and the bird.]

Occasionally, an observer would suggest that all I would have to do to "catch" a bird was to close my hand while she was sitting on it. I am sure it would not have been difficult to "catch" her that way. But to "keep" her after such a betrayal of trust would have required a cage. And no matter how delightful the feathered "trophy," it would have meant the loss of my real treasure -- that in her voluntary assent, I had "captured" her heart and soul, not her body. As long as she remained free, she remained mine in a sense that no cage could ever hold her.

She remained my companion for about six years, even after I moved out and only came back for occasional visits. It seemed almost like she recognized my car and knew that if it was parked in front of the house, she might find a "hand out" that she could alight upon to take her free goodies. If I didn't bring my peanut treats out into the yard promptly enough, she would hop right up next to the sliding glass door and rap her beak against it to summons me. Eventually, though, she stopped coming to the yard. I no longer found her waiting for me up on the telephone lines, or calling for me at the door, and I never knew what became of her.

Since childhood, I had "owned" many birds. But none was as special as this little bluebird, because I knew she came to me of her own free choice. There was no possessiveness or ownership. I never even gave her a name, which would have been an act of dominion. And I never had a better "pet."

Relationship Lessons. She also taught me some memorable lessons. I learned that the essence of relationships is not in ownership or domination, but in wholly voluntary attraction and sharing. While I have loved, enjoyed and cared for the many birds I have purchased and kept as pets, I was always conscious of the fact that they were "mine" because I bought and paid for them. Though many were allowed to fly free, our associations were not of their voluntary choosing and, in some form, they were kept mine through some form of "cage." The ultimate victory in relationships, as I would often ponder over the years, was to create a condition so attractive that another sentient being comes to you and stays with you entirely by its own choice.

True, no matter how much effort we may expend, not every person we encounter will be attracted to us. Just like thebirds: some birds will respond easily, some slowly, and some will never overcome their fear of potential predators. When we encounter those that respond slowly or not at all, we may experience disappointment at the failure. But if we resort to coercion in relationships -- if we go chasing after the bird -- we might catch it, but it will never be the free and beautiful relationship we sought; we also acknowledge the failure to achieve the ultimate success in relationships based on relating to others through wholly voluntary attraction. So it is also with the humans we wish to interact with. If we chase them and close our hands around them, they will never be ours, at least not in any real sense. Birds are not equal to human beings, but like people, they are social yet they still value their autonomy and freedom. If you coerce them, they will back away and retreat; if you respect their space they might alight upon your hand (or they might not ... after all, they are free.

I further considered that species such as scrub jays that are gregarious and social can be easily tamed, while others that are aloof and individualistic cannot. I thought about our own species. Humans are social animals. Like the birds that congregate in flocks, or other animals grouped in herds or packs, we have an inherent need for companionship. Yet we are also quiet, contemplative and solitary. For example, as much as I enjoy social events, participation in civic activities or rallying behind my favorite cause, I also love to curl up with a favorite book or sip my morning coffee in quiet aloneness with my morning newspapers.


Humans are both solitary and social. Our private selves need to be free, like the bluebirds, to make private choices and take individual risks that lead to rewards and opportunities. Our communal essence must attend to matters of public policy that involve others. An ideal sense of community is one in which private, personal, individual pursuits are left to private, personal, individual discretion while those affairs that involve the way we treat others are handled as matters of public or community policy.

My Bluebirds Today. Returning to the present from my rememberances of teen-aged years, I looked again at my new neighbors flitting around the bushes. Soon after discovering these bluebirds at our new home, I began to toss peanuts out into the yard.

Photo by Larry Blakely
Gradually, I began to linger in the yard as they gathered their treasures. Slowly I moved closer. Eventually, one bold female would come very near my hand, and finally she would take a peanut directly from my hand while perching on a pedestal that I set up in my back yard. Unlike my bluebird from decades ago who quickly learned to alight on my hand and linger, this female took more than a year of patient gentleness before she would alight directly upon my hand. But still, she has overcome her instinctive fear of another large creature because I have been able to create a situation in which attraction, earned through patient gentleness, outweighs apprehension.
And for birds like these, that is no small feat. We must remember that they are fearful and nervous with good reason: when a small, delicate, non-threatening (non-predatory) creature has the ability to fly, nervousness is a distinct evolutionary advantage. So at least for now, she comes quickly, takes her treat, and flits away as fast as she can. However, she is able to express her desire for my attention (read: food) by seeking me out when she does not readily see me out in the yard. She often searches out my bedroom window (on the other side of the yard), peering in to look for me. If she finds me there and makes "eye contact," she flits over to the back door where she knows I will promptly emerge with her hand-fed treats.

Will she ever linger upon my hand to await a second peanut?

That is something, I suppose, that only she will be able to decide.

Facts about scrub jays:

Scrub jays have been shown through experimental evidence to display an amazing spatial intelligence, and the ability to remember where they have stored surplus food supplies such as nuts, acorns or other durable foodstuffs -- often returning to hiding places years later, and even after using hundreds of other hiding places. In addition to nuts, scrub jays enjoy a wide variety of food sources including fruits and insects (including wasps and spiders) and sometimes even eggs from other birds, small rodents or other small creatures! Their diverse diet allows them the ability to thrive in a wide variety of environments, from forest to scrub to becoming ubiquitous in suburban neighborhoods!

These birds were once thought to range from coast to coast, but now have two distinct areas of range: the southwestern United States and Florida. These populations do not mix and do not migrate widely, but are year-round residents where found.

The book "Bird Brains," a Sierra Club book by Candace Savage, which investigates the behavior of jays and crows (they're in the same family, and among the most intelligent of bird species) also talks about scrub jays' unusual use of "helper" birds in managing the nest: young mature birds from previous seasons' clutches who stay around to help the parent birds raise the new hatchlings ... and in the process perhaps gain some nesting skills for their own future broods.

Scrub jays are about 10" to 12" in length and usually appear alone or in small groups of up to four birds, not in large flocks.

Scrub Jays in San Diego County, California

Western Scrub Jays are ubiquitous year-round residents throughout all parts of San Diego County (and the rest of Southern California for that matter). Because their diverse diet includes fruits, nuts, seeds, insects, and even small animals such as mice, they can and do occupy a wide range of habitats from forest to scrub to urban and suburban neighborhoods. They exist in huge numbers and there is no need to keep a list of sightings as they are seen many times each day in every part of the county.

Birding resources in North San Diego County, California

San Diego Bird List: online discussion group for San Diego County birders:

Buena Vista Audubon Society -- 2202 South Coast Highway (P.O. Box 480), Oceanside, California 92049. Phone: 760/439-BIRD (2473).
Local chapter of the national Audubon Society for Oceanside and Carlsbad (North County Coastal). Premises includes excellent visitors center (no admission charge, but donatins gratefully accepted) with extensive collection of taxidermy created from many species of local birds and other wildlife.

Palomar Audubon Society -- P.O. Box 2483, Escondido, California 92033. Phone: 858/487-4831.
Local chapter of the national Audubon Society for Escondido (North County Inland).

The Birdwatcher -- 2775 "B" Street, P.O. Box 388, Julian. Phone: 760/765-1817.
This is a large, lovely shop filled with excellent resources for birders or those who wish to attract birds to their yards, including books, maps, supplies, knick-knacks, feeders and feed, and just about anything else you can think of. A birder's dream come true.

Wild Birds Unlimited -- 2624 El Camino real, Carlsbad. Phone: 760/720-1906.
Attractive shop with feeders, bird seed, books and garden supplies for those wishing to attract wild birds to their yards.

Wild Bird Center -- 1283 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas (Henry's/McDonald's Shopping Center). Phone: 760/334-6001.
Attractive shop with feeders, bird seed, books, birding equipment and garden supplies for those wishing to attract wild birds to their yards.

Bluebird Video (Free)
[Requires version 3 or higher of QuickTime plug-in for Mac or Windows -- can be downloaded free at:]

Video footage by Thelma Mantos Dunn
Click here or on picture to view or download a free (recently taken) 5-second video (288k) of the bluebird taking a peanut from my hand.
[Requires version 3 or higher of QuickTime plug-in for Mac or Windows -- can be downloaded free at:]

Copyright (c) 1999, 2000 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

Link to USGS official summer breeding distribution map:
USGS map -- -- U.S. Geological Survey -- Summer Distribution Map

Link to Doug's waxwing page:

Doug's Personal bird lover's web page:
Bird Whisperer or Bird Brain? Doug's life time love affair with birds is chronicled with picturers of interactions with both wild and domesticated birds, from childhood through adulthood.

New birding tool available: I have discovered, bought and downloaded some excellent - amazing, really - new tools to enhance my birding experience! As the happy owner of the Apple iPhone, I was pleased to learn that a complete field guide was available for downloading from iTunes to my iPhone!
It was iBird Plus for the iPhone, which I downloaded last December (and subsequently received TWO FREE UPGRADES!)
More recently, a more advanced edition has been released, iBird PRO for the iPhone. I have since downloaded and installed iBird PRO and it is amazing.
In addition to numerous pictures, maps and information for each bird, there are excellent search features to identify birds within seconds, and one of my favorite features in the actual bird sounds! No more trying to explain a sound to a novice birder, or looking at a description in the field guide text trying to figure out what fzreeep really sounds like!
By the way, I have no connection to the developer (Mitch Waite Group) other than being a very satisfied customer.
More information at:

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+More Articles:
Check out additional articles by Douglas Dunn now available as FREE DOWNLOADS -- with additional articles being added regularly, each one an adaptation of those that have been published in mainstream newspapers and magazines [more articles].

Books by Douglas Dunn (click on book titles for descriptions of books and ordering information):
Books written by Douglas Dunn
may also be ordered online through Barnes and Noble, and/or available through other retail bookstores (if not in stock may be "special ordered").

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