Mexican Jays — Or, How We Reenacted A Scene From Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”

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The other day I drove to the top of Kitt Peak, a 6700-foot mountain southwest of Tucson, with a photographer friend, Rene Clark.  Kitt Peak is famous for its astronomical observatory.  But, it has something else and that is its own unique ecosystem and wildlife population.  At that altitude it’s a totally different world than what sees down on the surrounding desert.  One of the species that we were interested in photographing was Mexican Jays.  Mexican Jays are distantly related to crows and ravens.  They are raucous omnivores that invariably travel in small flocks of a half-dozen or so birds.  They’re good-size birds, much smaller than Common Ravens, but still, quite impressive.  There is a resident population of these birds at the summit of Kitt Peak.

When we got to the summit we saw a couple of jays but none of them were particularly cooperative.  I got the bright idea of offering these birds a few peanuts in order to attract them (actually, a friend showed me this trick with the Kitt Peak jays last year).  So, I strewed a few nuts on the ground.  The reaction was almost instantaneous and gratifying.  Jays swooped in immediately, devoured the nuts, and posed cooperatively for us.  The flock then flew off.  I tossed a few more nuts on the ground, exhausting my supply.  The birds returned at once, again devoured the nuts, and posed for us.  But, this time they didn’t leave.  Rather, several of them stood around us, forming a loose circle, and stared at us intently.

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They definitely had their eyes on me and they were waiting for the next handout.

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Some of these birds approached us so closely that they were within the minimum focusing distance of my lens (3.5 meters).  That’s pretty close.

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The scene reminded me a bit of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” in which Tippi Hedren is seated on a bench smoking a cigarette.  She looks around and finds herself surrounded by crows, who are silently and ominously staring at her.

What most struck me about these jays was their obvious intelligence.  The observatory area at Kitt Peak is a magnet for tourists and clearly, these birds are used to getting handouts.  But, even so, the speed with which they learned that I was a source of a meal astonished me.  It took them just two encounters for them to figure out that I was a potential jackpot.

One comment about “baiting” wildlife.  Generally, I don’t offer food to wildlife as an inducement to their posing.  I don’t want wild creatures to assume that humans are their friends and to make the mistake of thinking that everyone — including people who could do them harm — are potential sources of food or allies.  I made an exception here only because the Mexican Jays on Kitt Peak are already habituated to humans.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO, aperture priority setting.  The first image made at ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/1600.  The second and third images made at ISO 640.  The second image shot at f7.1 @ 1/1600, the third at f7.1 @ 1/1250.

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