What Stumped the Bluejays?

Mark Twain March 10, 2017

Mark Twain.

Ani­mals talk to each oth­er, of course. There can be no ques­tion about that; but I sup­pose there are very few peo­ple who can under­stand them. I nev­er knew but one man who could. I knew he could, how­ev­er, because he told me so him­self. He was a mid­dle-aged, sim­ple-heart­ed min­er who had lived in a lone­ly cor­ner of Cal­i­for­nia, among the woods and moun­tains, a good many years, and had stud­ied the ways of his only neigh­bors, the beasts and the birds, until he believed he could accu­rate­ly trans­late any remark which they made. This was Jim Bak­er. Accord­ing to Jim Bak­er, some ani­mals have only a lim­it­ed edu­ca­tion, and use only very sim­ple words, and scarce­ly ever a com­par­i­son or a flow­ery fig­ure; where­as, cer­tain oth­er ani­mals have a large vocab­u­lary, a fine com­mand of lan­guage and a ready and flu­ent deliv­ery; con­se­quent­ly these lat­ter talk a great deal; they like it; they are con­scious of their tal­ent, and they enjoy show­ing off.” Bak­er said, that after long and care­ful obser­va­tion, he had come to the con­clu­sion that the blue­jays were the best talk­ers he had found among birds and beasts. 

Said he:

There’s more to a blue­jay than any oth­er crea­ture. He has got more moods, and more dif­fer­ent kinds of feel­ings than oth­er crea­tures; and mind you, what­ev­er a blue­jay feels, he can put into lan­guage. And no mere com­mon­place lan­guage, either, but rat­tling, out-and-out book talk — and bristling with metaphor, too — just bristling! And as for com­mand of lan­guage — why you nev­er see a blue­jay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him! And anoth­er thing: I’ve noticed a good deal, and there’s no bird, or cow, or any­thing that uses as good gram­mar as a blue­jay. You may say a cat uses good gram­mar. Well, a cat does — but you let a cat get excit­ed once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with anoth­er cat on a shed, nights, and you’ll hear gram­mar that will give you the lock­jaw. Igno­rant peo­ple think it’s the noise which fight­ing cats make that is so aggra­vat­ing, but it ain’t so; it’s the sick­en­ing gram­mar they use. Now I’ve nev­er heard a jay use bad gram­mar but very sel­dom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.

You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a mea­sure — because he’s got feath­ers on him, and don’t belong to no church, per­haps; but oth­er­wise he is just as much a human as you be. And I’ll tell you for why. A jay’s gifts, and instincts, and feel­ings, and inter­ests, cov­er the whole ground. A jay has­n’t got any more prin­ci­ple than a con­gress­man. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacred­ness of an oblig­a­tion is a thing which you can’t cram into no blue­jay’s head. Now, on top of all this, there’s anoth­er thing; a jay can outswear any gen­tle­man in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a blue­jay a sub­ject that calls for his reserve pow­ers, and where is your cat! Don’t talk to me — I know too much about this thing. And there’s yet anoth­er thing; in the one lit­tle par­tic­u­lar of scold­ing — just good, clean, out-and-out scold­ing — a blue­jay can lay over any­thing, human or divine. Yes, sir, a jay is every­thing that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can rea­son and plan and dis­cuss, a jay likes gos­sip and scan­dal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do — maybe bet­ter. If a jay ain’t human, he bet­ter take in his sign, that’s all. Now I’m going to tell you a per­fect­ly true fact about some blue­jays. When I first begun to under­stand jay lan­guage cor­rect­ly, there was a lit­tle inci­dent hap­pened here. Sev­en years ago, the last man in this region but me moved away. There stands his house — been emp­ty ever since; a log house, with a plank roof — just one big room, and no more; no ceil­ing — noth­ing between the rafters and the floor. Well, one Sun­day morn­ing I was sit­ting out here in front of my cab­in, with my cat, tak­ing the sun, and look­ing at the blue hills, and lis­ten­ing to the leaves rustling so lone­ly in the trees, and think­ing of the home away yon­der in the states, that I had­n’t heard from in thir­teen years, when a blue­jay lit on that house, with an acorn in his mouth, and says, Hel­lo, I reck­on I’ve struck some­thing.” When he spoke, the acorn dropped out of his mouth and rolled down the roof, of course, but he did­n’t care; his mind was all on the thing he had struck. It was a knot­hole in the roof. He cocked his head to one side, shut one eye and put the oth­er one to the hole, like a pos­sum look­ing down a jug; then he glanced up with his bright eyes, gave a wink or two with his wings — which sig­ni­fies grat­i­fi­ca­tion, you under­stand — and says, It looks like a hole, it’s locat­ed like a hole — blamed if I don’t believe it is a hole!”

Then he cocked his head down and took anoth­er look; he glances up per­fect­ly joy­ful, this time; winks his wings and his tail both, and says, Oh, no, this ain’t no fat thing, I reck­on! If I ain’t in luck! — why it’s a per­fect­ly ele­gant hole!” So he flew down and got that acorn, and fetched it up and dropped it in, and was just tilt­ing his head back, with the heav­en­li­est smile on his face, when all of a sud­den he was par­a­lyzed into a lis­ten­ing atti­tude and that smile fad­ed grad­u­al­ly out of his coun­te­nance like breath off’n a razor, and the queer­est look of sur­prise took its place. Then he says, Why, I did­n’t hear it fall!” He cocked his eye at the hole again, and took a long look; raised up and shook his head; stepped around to the oth­er side of the hole and took anoth­er look from that side; shook his head again. He stud­ied awhile, then he just went into the details — walked round and round the hole and spied into it from every point of the com­pass. No use. Now he took a think­ing atti­tude on the comb of the roof and scratched the back of his head with his right foot a minute, and final­ly says, Well, it’s too many for me, that’s cer­tain; must be a mighty long hole; how­ev­er, I ain’t got no time to fool around here, I got to tend to busi­ness; I reck­on it’s all right — chance it, anyway.”

So he flew off and fetched anoth­er acorn and dropped it in, and tried to flirt his eye to the hole quick enough to see what become of it, but he was too late. He held his eye there as much as a minute; then he raised up and sighed, and says, Con­found it, I don’t seem to under­stand this thing, no way; how­ev­er, I’ll tack­le her again.” He fetched anoth­er acorn, and done his lev­el best to see what become of it, but he could­n’t. He says, Well, I nev­er struck no such a hole as this before; I’m of the opin­ion it’s a total­ly new kind of a hole.” Then he begun to get mad. He held in for a spell, walk­ing up and down the comb of the roof and shak­ing his head and mut­ter­ing to him­self; but his feel­ings got the upper hand of him, present­ly, and he broke loose and cussed him­self black in the face. I nev­er see a bird take on so about a lit­tle thing. When he got through he walks to the hole and looks in again for half a minute; then he says, Well, you’re a long hole, and a deep hole, and a mighty sin­gu­lar hole alto­geth­er — but I’ve start­ed in to fill you, and I’m d****d if I don’t fill you, if it takes a hun­dred years!”

And with that, away he went. You nev­er see a bird work so since you was born. The way he hove acorns into that hole for about two hours and a half was one of the most excit­ing and aston­ish­ing spec­ta­cles I ever struck. He nev­er stopped to take a look any­more — he just hov­e’em in and went for more. Well, at last he could hard­ly flop his wings, he was so tuck­ered out. He comes a‑drooping down, once more, sweat­ing like an ice pitch­er, drops his acorn in and says, Now I guess I’ve got the bulge on you by this time!” So he bent down for a look. Ify­ou’ll believe me, when his head come up again he was just pale with rage. He says, I’ve shov­eled acorns enough in there to keep the fam­i­ly thir­ty years, and if I can see a sign of one of’em I wish I may land in a muse­um with a bel­ly full of saw­dust in two minutes!” 

He just had strength enough to crawl up onto the comb and lean his back agin the chim­bly, and then he col­lect­ed his impres­sions and begun to free his mind. I see in a sec­ond that what I had mis­took for pro­fan­i­ty in the mines was only just the rudi­ments, as you may say.

Anoth­er jay was going by, and heard him doing his devo­tions, and stops to inquire what was up. The suf­fer­er told him the whole cir­cum­stance, and says, Now yon­der’s the hole, and if you don’t believe me, go and look for your­self.” So this fel­low went and looked, and comes back and says, How many did you say you put in there?” Not any less than two tons,” says the suf­fer­er. The oth­er jay went and looked again. He could­n’t seem to make it out, so he raised a yell, and three more jays come. They all exam­ined the hole, they all made the suf­fer­er tell it over again, then they all dis­cussed it, and got off as many leather-head­ed opin­ions about it as an aver­age crowd of humans could have done.

They called in more jays; then more and more, till pret­ty soon this whole region beared to have a blue flush about it. There must have been five thou­sand of them; and such anoth­er jaw­ing and dis­put­ing and rip­ping and cussing, you nev­er heard. Every jay in the whole lot put his eye to the hole and deliv­ered a more chuck­le-head­ed opin­ion about the mys­tery than the jay that went there before him. They exam­ined the house all over, too. The door was stand­ing half open, and at last one old jay hap­pened to go and light on it and look in. Of course, that knocked the mys­tery gal­ley-west in a sec­ond. There lay the acorns, scat­tered all over the floor. He flopped his wings and raised a whoop. Come here ! ” he says. Come here, every­body; hang’d if this fool has­n’t been try­ing to fill up a house with acorns!” They all came a‑swooping down like a blue cloud, and as each fel­low lit on the door and took a glance, the whole absur­di­ty of the con­tract that that first jay had tack­led hit him home and he fell over back­ward suf­fo­cat­ing with laugh­ter, and the next jay took his place and done the same.

Well, sir, they roost­ed around here on the house­top and the trees for an hour, and guf­fawed over that thing like human beings. It ain’t any use to tell me a blue­jay has­n’t got a sense of humor, because I know bet­ter. And mem­o­ry, too. They brought jays here from all over the Unit­ed States to look down that hole, every sum­mer for three years. Oth­er birds, too. And they could all see the point, except an owl that come from Nova Sco­tia to vis­it the Yosemite, and he took this thing in on his way back. He said he could­n’t see any­thing fun­ny in it. But then he was a good deal dis­ap­point­ed about Yosemite, too. 

(“Jim Bak­er’s Blue­jay Yarn,” first appeared in A Tramp Abroad, a book about an Amer­i­can trav­el­ing in Europe pub­lished in 1880.)

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Mark Twain (18351910) was an Amer­i­can humorist, satirist, social crit­ic, lec­tur­er and nov­el­ist. He is most remem­bered for The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer. He wrote this sto­ry in 1870.
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