I’ve been enraptured by birds since I was a youngster. My favorites have always been corvids — crows and especially blue jays — because of their myriad vocalizations, playful (and crafty) antics, and obvious intelligence. But in the summer of ’69, when we lived between Drexel and Valdese, NC, there was a family of Carolina wrens dwelling in a detached, concrete block garage on our property. They would allow me to get tantalizingly close before fluttering away — impressive, given the fidgity nature of an 8 year old kid.
In May of this year I noticed a male blue jay stopping regularly at our chain-link fence in the back yard. Having read some recent articles about corvid theory of mind, I thought I would engage in an experiment (for the sake of personal amusement) to test his ability to read my motives. I would toss him a peanut, at different times, wearing different attire, to observe his reactions. After accepting the first couple of tosses, he suddenly turned the tables on me by appearing to refuse them. He would sit as I tossed one, then two, then three nuts his way — then fly away as if entirely disinterested. But on one occasion I went inside and, looking through the shutters, saw him return to collect all three of the nuts.
It was all about him, clever rascal.
So I proved something about his intelligence, I guess; but blue jays are also extremely social, community-oriented creatures. By the last week of May he was getting called away to regular “mob duty” a couple of blocks away — presumably to help chase away a hawk or owl — and his visits to our fence became infrequent. About that same time I noticed a pair of Carolina wrens in our back yard. Now, this species has been nesting on our property for nearly all of the past 16 years we’ve lived here, usually in our detached garage. But while I would wait for the jay this pair would zoom right past me, close enough that I could almost reach out to intercept one, as they rounded the corner for the driveway side of the house.
This species of wren is the state bird of South Carolina, but they’re thick here in the North Carolina, at my parents’ in Tennessee, and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. (maybe they’re trying to get away from Lindsey Graham). They don’t migrate and tend to stay close to one particular place. This pair may be descendants of some of the first wrens we saw on our property years ago.
It took a few sour-smelling loads of laundry to make the connection: these guys had built their globular nest inside the outlet for our dryer vent. Fortunately (for them), by the time we realized this the chicks were ready to leave the nest.
Now, on one occasion in late May I half-seriously tossed half a peanut to the male wren as he sat on a pole in my wife’s salsa garden. To my surprise he swooped down to collect it, took it over to our patio and banged it into little pieces. I didn’t know that Carolina wrens would eat peanuts.
I didn’t record the exact day this happened; but by June 5 I had noted that, “the male wren is coming to me on the patio morning and evening, ‘begging’ for a peanut.” I also noted that he was approaching so closely as I sat eating and chatting with my wife that, “I might be able to get him to take from my hand.” Sure enough, on June 9, with the video recorder in my phone running, the little joker flew up to the armrest on my Adirondack and snatched a peanut from my outstretched fingers.
The first few times he took a nut from my hand he did so with wary quickness. But within a couple of days his comfort level rose extraordinarily. After receiving a nut he would sit calmly by my hand for several seconds before dropping to the patio by my feet, where he would proceed to break it into tiny pieces to feed the five chicks now out of the nest and learning to forage.
When I come home from work the standard ritual is for our dog, an eleven year-old mutt named Aggie, to bark and wag and literally push open the glass door in the front for me to enter. On June 16 as I came up the walkway I saw the wren, sitting on the back of the Adirondack by the front door, waiting for me. The chicks were in the maple tree in our front yard and he was looking for an energy snack to give them. Our 30 pound dog, preempted by this 0.7 ounce interloper, sulked the rest of the evening.
I started to feel a bit manipulative in requiring this little guy to take from my hand. So I’ve reverted to tossing or “handing” him a nut when he approaches.
I’ve watched the chicks that were born in my dryer vent grow over the past couple of weeks. They and their mama are skittish toward me, but at lunch today (6/25/14) I succeeded in getting one to emerge from under our gas grill (wrens love to check under these for earwigs and spiders) to accept a small piece of nut I’d tossed there.
As the chicks prepare to cut the apron strings I know this could likely alter my interactions with the dad. He and his more reserved mate may start a new clutch — and not necessarily in our yard. His territory, which he claims with a bright and ear-splitting putta-wee putta-wee putta-wee chuck! consists of a two-by-seven lot block (other wrens claim adjacent blocks). In the past week I’ve noticed ‘our’ family spending more time at the other end of the block. He comes to see me around 6:00 a.m. for what is probably his own energy breakfast, but the evening visits have tapered off.
I’m hoping, perhaps against hope, to maintain contact with him (or that he’ll come back if he leaves) in the fall and winter, when my peanut snacks will be especially helpful. He has been a delight to my family, and we’ve talked about at his example of faithfulness and selflessness to his family.
He’s not a pet, but over the past month I’ve grown attached to him (I replaced the dryer vent, so I don’t hold that against him). At a minimum I’m going to enjoy whatever interactions time allows. As a Christian these little visits make me look forward to the Day of Christ and the age to come, when the restoration of harmony between mankind and beast is realized; when the sons of God are revealed to all creatures, great and small (Romans 8:18-21).