Lessons from a Blue Jay

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Over the past three months, I have been able to pick up birdwatching, a former pastime that I regretfully let go of many years ago when family, childcare, travel, work, and fatigue took precedence. When I returned to Beauvoir last year, I was eager to dig out my binoculars and birding books, set out the various feeding stations in the front and back yards, and stock up on my supplies of suet cakes, seed cylinders, Nyger seed, hummingbird nectar, sunflower seeds, stakes, hooks, poles, and feeders. The first few days, my feeders were pretty lonely, but by the end of the week, my feathered friends had returned. The remarkable memories I had from my early birdwatching years flooded back. I started waking up early in the morning so I could enjoy my first cup of coffee listening to the familiar “meows” of the catbird, spying the quiet little titmouse getting his breakfast before the starlings took over, and studying the beautiful, downy woodpeckers shuffling down the bird pole to the seedcake filled with dried mealworms, a personal favorite.

My daily and proximate observations allowed me to witness some interesting behaviors that quickly led my mind to wander and think about meaningful areas of my life. Not surprisingly, the first place my mind often wandered was to my daily work with children and families. You see, there is a family of blue jays that lives behind our home in the tall trees we share with our neighbor. Without fail, these vibrant blue birds greet us every morning in the same way a rooster greets the crack of dawn with his well-known song. Those of you who are familiar with blue jays may instantly recognize their loud shrieks and caws. They certainly wake you up if you are still sleeping! They are loud. They are relentless. They are cacophonous. They send a message.

However, I do have a fondness for the blue jay. I have always wanted to know it better and so I observe it carefully and for long periods, from the brilliant blues and whites it carries to the unique behaviors it exhibits. The one thing that distinguishes it from the other birds who regularly visit my feeders is that it has not quite learned what educators often call “effective group entry skills.” I am honestly not sure he ever will. I keep an updated list of the birds who visit the yard so I can learn more about them. Like Beauvoir, there is a rich diversity of sizes, shapes, calls, colors, behaviors, and preferences when I consider all of the birds who arrive each day. There is the tufted titmouse, who quickly comes and goes, and gingerly lands on the feeder, the Carolina chickadee who flies in so swiftly, you don’t see him coming. He edges down sideways to his meal, pecks out a small chunk, and flickers away. The downy woodpecker has become one of my most comfortable and brave guests, for he will often remain on the feeder or fly in for a quick nibble while I am in the throes of changing the food out, although he does watch me very carefully. The goldfinches, starlings, doves, cardinals, wrens, mockingbirds, and finches all come to the playground each day, and I have come to know them well.

But the blue jay is, well, different. My other feathered friends seem to have learned how to navigate their various relationships at the feeder: taking turns, working through occasional disagreements, displaying patience, spreading out in the front yard so the space can be shared equitably, singing songs to each other, taking food back to the nest for their families, and sharing the feeder when room is available. Without fail, the blue jay always swoops in unannounced with a sonorous shriek and takes over. He is big, bold, and brash, unafraid to make his presence known. What he may not realize, however, is that his behavior is not making him any friends. He has just disturbed a very calm gathering of birds coming together to partake of an abundance of free treats that were given to them by a strange lady who stalks them with her binoculars. They don’t even have to spend time hunting for food! The blue jay does not understand that he is solely responsible when the other birds flap away in a cloud of feathers and gawks. He startled them and they will never return until they can see he is gone. Occasionally, one or two mockingbirds or starlings (who can also be tough cookies when they choose) will fly in to see if they might create a compromise. The blue jay bobs his head, assumes a taller stature, pecks them off the feeder, and returns to his grub. He has the feeder all to himself and, I imagine, he is momentarily happy. But he certainly looks lonely up there without the neighborhood gang who was getting along quite well before he arrived.

And, so it is for our children. Occasionally, educators and caregivers need to offer some gentle guidance and support to children who are still learning their “group entry skills,” a critical repertoire of social skills that should be learned during the early years. You may have witnessed this before with children at play on a playground. One child may jump in to command a game of Four Square by taking the ball from a peer, laughing, and kicking it hard in the other direction, while the other peers look on with surprise and anger. Another child may wish to join a group playing on the zipline, but stands several feet away from the activity, staring at the group, not quite sure how to join the action. Both of these are prime examples of children who are experiencing difficulty with group entry skills, and they each need adult support. In fact, adults who have not practiced or learned effective group entry skills during their early years find that they are often challenged in their personal and professional relationships as adults, and life, in general, can be hard to navigate. Positive and effective group entry skills enable children to develop and maintain friendships, read and understand social cues, enter and sustain social exchanges during play, and build social habits that can serve them for a lifetime.

There is a great deal of research around the importance of group entry skills. Given that most children begin to display these social behaviors as young as three or four-years of age, studies show that it is vital for adults to monitor and support children with their growing social competency to increase the likelihood of peer acceptance, positive play experiences, secure language development, emotional well-being, and overall childhood growth and development. Here are some tips that are helpful for parents and caregivers to keep in mind as children grow into socially competent citizens. Practicing them this summer while we are socially distanced from each other is especially important so that students are primed and ready to re-engage with their friends and peers when we return this fall!

Tips to Support Our Children

  • Provide some suggestions for language to use when you notice your child “hovering” around an activity and unsure of how to join (“Can I try using the blue crayon?”);
  • Encourage children to use their words and express their feelings when emotions rise or others may not be compliant (instead of behaviors such as stomping away, hitting, and/or yelling);
  • Give children opportunities to casually observe or witness others at play in groups and have discussions about what (s)he noticed (“Why do you think John chose to invite Ben into his game even though it made the teams have uneven numbers? How do you think Ben felt?”);
  • Allow time for children to practice negotiation and agreement with family members and peers (i.e. have the child pose alternative ideas when a family member or peer’s initiation may not be preferred); and
  • Create abundant opportunities to practice the following peer-friendly behaviors this summer: smiling, comforting, turn-taking, sharing, helping, interacting, and expressing feelings.

We want our juvenile “blue jays” to realize that there are other, happy alternatives to get to the feeder and enjoy life before they become adult avians. We are in this together and Beauvoir is here to support. Enjoy your children this summer and we will see you soon.

With appreciation,

Cindi