Tuesday is trash day and on that morning last week I was getting ready to leave town. I made a quick pass through the pantry looking for stale cookies, dusty tins of unused spices, and out-of-date cake mixes to toss in my white trash bag . I paused when I found a half-eaten bag of tortilla chips. A few days earlier the flickers and woodpeckers had finished the last of the big blocks of bird seed that I hang in the backyard and I wasn’t going to have time to buy more before leaving.
I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea but I tossed the bag on the floor and crushed the chips underfoot. On my way out to the trash bin I dumped the crumbs under the empty feeder. It was a couple of hours before I went back downstairs to see if the birds had discovered the treat. They had. A Steller’s jay and a scrub jay were facing off across the mound of chips and, as I stood watching, a magpie showed up.
While the jays and magpies squawked at each other, a polite group of western bluebirds sat around the edge of the heated birdbath having a drink of water.
Steller’s jays always remind me of moving to New Mexico. Our first house was a dark, dingy little place that a friend nicknamed “the dumpalow”. It had a sagging roof, stained, plush green carpet, and torn curtains. The one bright spot was a built-in table in the kitchen at a large west-facing window. Just outside were two bird feeding stands–four-by-four posts set in the ground, topped with weathered plywood. I started with cracker and bread crumbs and soon figured out the best place in town to buy seed. Dave and I were delighted with the number of birds that showed up. A favorite was the blue jay with the saucy black crest, like no other bird either of us had seen.
The Steller’s jay is native to the western United States and was described during the Kamchatka Expedition to what is now Alaska in 1741 by Georg Steller, the ship’s naturalist. Long before the Russian explorers showed up the Makah people of Washington state called the bird kwish-kwishee and told this story about how it got its distinctive crest from a mink named Kwahtie with a bow and arrow.
Feeling a little guilty about feeding the jays junk food I sent an email to Wild Birds Unlimited. Within a couple of days I received a polite response from Brian Cunningham in the hobby department. He said that many birds do like whole dried corn or cracked corn, but had never heard of anyone feeding them tortilla chips. He advised that foods processed for humans contain oils, salts, and seasonings that aren’t good for the birds on a regular basis, but conceded it probably wouldn’t hurt them this one time. My thought exactly.