Are people really afraid of Mr. Peanut?

A Western Scrub Jay – Mr. Peanut, our neighbor & my daughters’ friend

The Fresno Bee has been carrying several stories about birds in its pages lately, which is a good thing on the whole, but I can’t say I quite agree with the tone of the latest feature on the front of the Life section last saturday titled: Not wanted in your yard? What do you think? [and if you want to read the above article, you’ll have to click on the link very soon before it disappears behind the pay-per-view archive of the Bee – I’ll hang on to my paper copy in case you miss it online]

Depressingly (although perhaps not surprisingly), this prominent article, with the goal of helping readers deal with “problem” birds, set the wrong tone for me right off the bat by misidentifying one of our common urban denizens, the native Western Scrub Jay (pictured here) as a Blue Jay which does not even occur in this area! And then it goes on to portray these birds, which my daughters love to feed in our backyard in the Fresno High neighborhood, as fearsome creatures, to deal with whom one must

“Carry an umbrella for protection and to scare them off by flipping it open a couple of times.”

Huh??!! Are people really that scared of these jays? Mr. Peanut (thus named by my daughter Sanzari, although she won’t let me ascertain the Mr. part!) is tame enough to take peanuts from Sanzari’s hand, without frightening even her toddler sister. I suppose some people are paranoid about birds, but really now!!

And that isn’t the only thing wrong with this article. It identifies 8 taxa as unwanted birds: Pigeons, Cliff Swallows, Starlings, Acorn Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Blue Jays (sic), Geese and Ducks. How many of these would you not want to see in your neighborhood, especially given the rapid urbanization of the central valley? I think we can all agree that we wouldn’t miss the Pigeons and Starlings (although the Bee also had another article several weeks ago that was quite positive about the thousands of Starlings roosting up in the River Park shopping mall) so much, and perhaps the Goose-dung is a bit of a problem, and the occasional woodpecker may cache acorns in the walls of a house – but what about the rest on this blacklist? All native species that somehow manage to hang on even as we continue to expand our habitat, and bring a little cheer to otherwise dreary suburbs. Is it too much to expect people to figure out a way to live with some of these smaller creatures, particularly when they impose such a negligible “cost” on us? Biodiversity is becoming precious as it is, and plenty of us bemoan its loss in the distant Amazon rainforest and Antarctica – can’t we appreciate what remains in our own backyards? Are our homes and lawns so perfect that a little migratory cliff swallow nest will unmake our spring? Does the red flash of the Flicker’s wings as it flits from tree-trunk to tree-trunk not brighten up any yard? Even the author of this article acknowledges these positives, albeit not without a caveat, on the last line:

“And when they’re not leaving droppings or trying to build a colony under your eaves, they can be interesting to watch.”

So these birds may be seen, perhaps heard too, but they cannot be allowed to actually live their lives naturally in our midst. How rude of them to be answering nature’s call or raising babies in our view!!

Apart from this general tone of the article, it does mention several times that some of these birds and their nests are legally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This is true, and with good reason – the law was enacted in 1918 (following several other legislative steps) in response to alarming declines in migratory birds due to active harvest by people during the late 1800s and early 1900s (and ironically enough, migrant birds underwent another significant decline in the closing decades of the 20th century, making this law that much more significant and relevant all over again) – so yes, removing that swallow nest at the wrong time may get you into trouble with the law, sure. But the article appears to regard this as another nuisance as you try to deal with these unwanted birds because

If they are [protected], you may be limited in what you can do and when.

So if that swallow nest bothers you, hose it off before there are eggs laid in it! Talk about missing the spirit and intent of the law! As an ornithologist, am I supposed to feel apologetic about inconveniencing a few folks by championing such laws (that might help prevent another Silent Spring)? Sorry, but no – instead, I would rather encourage you to appreciate the beauty of that swallow and the way it builds its nest for a fleeting summer of romance before making that long journey south for another uncertain winter.

What does this story imply for the theme of our class and this blog – reconciliation ecology? Well, that earlier story, about starlings roosting in the mall, had a better ring to it than this one does – ironic considering how much of a problem those European Starlings are to native birds!

5 thoughts on “Are people really afraid of Mr. Peanut?

  1. Sal

    Not only can the author not get the basic facts straight, he also contradicts his previous articles. I have lived in the area my entire life and have yet to witness anyone fending off a “Blue Jay” attack. Either the author’s an idiot, or it was a slow news day (probably both).

  2. Michael Ruffino

    Wonderful comments. Although I am just a Wild Bird Store owner and a backyard bird hobbiest I loved what you said and I did send a letter to the editor with my criticisms.You carry much more weight since your knowledge far exceeds mine.Thank you for your comments and you are welcomed in my store any time.Michael RuffinoWild Bird Center 1075 E. Bullard #107432-9453

  3. Benjamin Boone

    It is not surprising that in our ultra-materialistic and human-centered world that people care more about a clean car than indigenous creatures. People like to think they are in control, and thus it bothers them that birds DARE to venture where they don’t want them. What an inconveience to have “undesirable birds! Let’s get rid of them!” What a sad commentary on our culture and society. Too bad that at the current rate of human destruction, they will have their wish much too soon. Benjamin Boone

  4. Madhu

    Michael Ruffino said: “I loved what you said and I did send a letter to the editor with my criticisms.”.Thank you, Michael. I appreciate your comments, although I don’t know that mine necessarily carry any more weight! Did the Bee publish your letter? I’m afraid I haven’t been diligent in scanning the letters pages for the past several weeks, so I may have missed any reactions they deemed worthy of publishing.Benjamin Boone said: “What an inconveience to have “undesirable birds! Let’s get rid of them!” What a sad commentary on our culture and society. Too bad that at the current rate of human destruction, they will have their wish much too soon.”Actually, at the current rate of habitat destruction by humans (I’m guessing that’s what you meant, Ben, not destruction of humans! :-)), it is much more likely that most of the birds we will be left with will be the undesirable species – you know, like the starlings, pigeons, and house sparrows that thrive in our habitats! And so the ironies continue to mount in our supposedly post-ironic culture.One of the major effects of human creation of urban (and similar habitats) is that the flora and fauna of these places begin to look alike no matter where you travel on the planet – a process known as biotic homogenization, a topic I may write about here as we get deeper into this class.

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