Jay and Me

When you live in a town famous for its wild low bush blueberry crop raising the high bush variety can lift an eyebrow or two. Back in the 1980′s I once mentioned that I had a small blueberry orchard at a party where one of the attendees was a local blueberry farmer. When he learned that I had high bush blueberries he remarked “Well, they really aren’t that bad considering they all originated in a swamp!” I laughed at the time and of course he was right. Our modern cultivar high bush blueberries all hail from ancestors that love wetlands. I know. I spent much of my childhood crawling around ancient kettle ponds, formed originally by glacial ice blocks left behind that were surrounded by gravel and sand from retreating glaciers some 15,000 years ago, that had morphed into isolated wetland swamps known as kettle swamps. And they were all chuck full of high bush blueberries.

Our orchard, roughly 30 shrubs ranging from 5 to 30 years old, is what one would call, with all certainty, a hobby orchard. Not big enough to be commercial but the 40-80 pounds it yields will certainly keep this berry picker busy during late summer evenings. I learned to pick berries as a kid in those kettle swamps…..one berry at a time. Unlike low bush berries that can be picked with a scoop because most ripen at about the same time high bush blueberry can yield berries for up to 6 weeks on a single plane. The one berry at a time routine takes patience. And it takes time. Lots and lots of time spread out over half of the summer.

High bush blueberry pickers are a different sort. You have to love the process. Getting each berry nearing its peak of ripeness takes practice, skill, and a willingness to pass up a berry to be picked the next day. The problem is that this waiting can yield losses to marauding birds, especially the pesky cedar waxwing. Why not cover them? Well, that’s a good question. To make a long story short the bottom line is that I’ve been there and done that. The reality is these birds prize the blueberry and will spend inordinate amounts of time and energy to defeat any obstacle. Nets are a cinch. They rip them, the find ways under them. They even sneak in while you pull the netting aside to harvest the ripe berries yourself! Worse, building net structures or taking nets off and putting them back on takes time. Precious time that should be spent picking each blueberry while examining it on all sides to be sure that it is perfect.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to deal with the bird problem. Robins and blue jays aren’t so bad. They’ll eat quite a few berries, one at a time, but they don’t come in huge flocks. Cedar waxwings nest and raise their young in the late summer. They are late summer nesters because they are primarily berry eaters. It makes sense for them to have peak harvests at the time their young are hatched and in the nest. Hence the late summer nesting habit. Worse they send out scout birds. I’ve seen them lurking on nearby branches just waiting to swoop down and sample the treasure. And when they discover that there is a large number of ripe blueberries they go back to some sort of clandestine waxwing meeting and tell and entire flock. A flock can kill an entire picking in less than ten minutes. And they’ll do it over and over again as the berries ripen. I know it has happened to me. Trying to stay ahead of them requires one to pick early and often. The perfect berry can’t be harvested in such a manner!

Last summer I made a discovery. There was an aggressive Blue Jay who used to pester me while I was picking berries. I respected his antics but one day when he flew right into my face I chucked a small two quart plastic bucket in his direction. The blueberries in the bucket went everywhere. The bucket missed the bird by at least a yard. The result was that the blue jay just sat about 20 feet away in a blueberry bush and squawked at me incessantly. He was really upset. I felt guilty and let him be. During that entire pick the blue jay let me know that he did not approve. I had it coming so I let him carry on. The next day I was walking by the orchard and I saw the same Jay squawking at a couple of cedar waxwings. When the squawking didn’t work he flew right into them just as he’d done with me and chased them away. I assumed they were scouts and I was amazed at how intimidated they were by the blue jay. He was down right nasty to them. I praised the blue jay from a distance. He wasn’t at all impressed with the sing song tone I used during my moment of praise. After all, the day before I had chucked a bucket at him.

The next day while picking he arrived and was ranting and raving with his squawking letting me know that these were, in his opinion, his berries. I ignored him and didn’t even react when he took a couple of the ripe berries only a few yards away. This went on for a few more days, us tolerating each other, and soon enough, on most days, he’d simply go about his business while I went about mine. Then one day the cedar waxwing scouts showed up while I was picking. I was looking around my feet for something to threaten them with. The Jay took action and gave them hell. He wasn’t about to let some renegade birds horn in on his territory. It was bad enough that he had to share it with me! When he returned from the chase he went back to work. I whistled a tune while picking. The blue jay stopped harvesting his supper and listened for a minute. I could tell he saw no value in my whistling, after all he is a bird, but I could also tell he was tolerating me. That’s when I named him Jay. Jay and I had a strategy. We each went about our business. He’d chase away cedar wax wings, robins, catbirds, you name it. And I wouldn’t disturb him while he was picking.

Soon enough the berry picking season was over. I saw Jay around occasionally. He is quite large and very easy to recognize. For the most part we saw very little of each other.

This season, early on in July, I was inspecting to see when the berry season might begin. I looked up and Jay was doing his inspection berries too a few bushes away. We both knew the dance. He’d do his job chasing other birds away especially the predatory cedar waxwing. I’d leave him alone to pick the berries he needed for sustenance. The world would be nearly perfect. The harvest this year was my outstanding. I could tell Jay was doing well too because he looked a little on the rotund side despite the daily exercise of blueberry security and chasing wayward birds. We were now, officially, a team.

And both living in a town full of low bush blueberries and preferring the ones right in front of us. Oh, the eye brows may still get raised, but now there are two of us! Jay and me. Two peas in a pod. Berry picking fools!

Originally written for the Heath Herald in August 2016.

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