Higher Education …

Blue JayLand, refuel, and take off, again and again, from every flight pattern, every direction. I’ve never seen a collision, even when the airways and runways are congested. Whoever’s controlling arrivals and departures does so with remarkable ease.

Every morning I leave fuel outside our window: a handful of peanuts. It’s great for hungry blue jays. Pretty soon, like clockwork, they begin: landing, nabbing a nut (or two or three) and flying off to hide or eat it. One departs, another lands, and so it goes: never two at the same time – always coordinated, always efficient.

The raucous, loud-mouthed blue jay – Cyanocitta cristata – is the common crow’s kissin’ cousin. Jays are beautiful, handsome, striking – fine, of course, with a little humbleness thrown in. But blue jays are not particularly humble. (Nor, oddly enough, are they actually blue. Instead, their feathers refract and scatter the blue spectrum of light. Since we view our world primarily through reflected light, we then see a blue bird. It’s called structural coloration – color created by outside interference, not by actual pigmentation.)

That suits the blue jay, who’s definitely a very black-and-white kind of bird. That incredibly strong personality means we either love him or hate him. We consider jays flashy, intelligent, and industrious … or else obnoxious, mean, and greedy. It’s all in the perspective, and I’m convinced we can learn from them.

When you have strong personalities, sometimes you just have to fly solo.

Blue jays know what they are. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Just watch. Jays almost always fly directly from one point to another – no acrobatics, no twists – one at a time, and usually at a healthy distance from others.

Talk all you want about teamwork, committees and shared tasks, but we all know at least one person who really does work best alone. We’ve heard singers whose voices are so beautiful you could drown in them, but who just don’t blend when they sing in a choir. The effect is music that doesn’t quite inspire. Force these folks to share tasks and they chafe at restrictions, real or imagined. You can’t tie them to teams and expect them to thrive. Instead, you realize that everyone has different gifts and different ways of using them; some working with others and some flying alone. There’s room for all kinds.

It’s best to wait your turn.

Ever witness blue a blue jay feeding frenzy? You hear them first. Once they notice food, they stake a claim. Not only do their voices scream out “food!” to other jays but their call alerts smaller birds to expect incoming traffic and clear the runways. Then you see the proof: blue jays are efficient. They swoop in, they select, they take off, leaving the table open for the next guy. Too much food for one raid? They just take the nuts and seeds to hide – in branches, in the ground, underneath dead leaves – wherever it suits them. Sure, they return again and again, but they go about it in an orderly way. The point is it’s a very systematic process: They take turns.

It puts me in mind of the “running of the brides” at Boston’s mega-store, Filenes, during its annual paean to commercialism and greed: the wedding dress sale. Thousands of women clad in sports bras, bike shorts and tennis shoes claw their way into the store. They grab dress after dress – claiming them all – indiscriminately. With their posses guarding their haul, they strip and try on dresses. The lucky ones find a “perfect” gown at bargain prices.

Apparently a few girls calmly enter a little later and wait, patiently, for someone to toss away a reject. They, too, find perfect dresses. They find them without the aggravation and scrabbling of their nearby cousins who don’t believe in taking turns, and without the tumbles, scrapes, and bruises of that mad dash. They find “the one” and slip away, usually while the early birds still cling to their captured nuts in indecision. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I think.

You may have to cull through the peanuts to find the one that’s best for you.

For a blue jay, facing a basketful of peanuts is daunting. Sometimes he’ll simply grab the one on top and take off. At other times, he’ll pick up one, promptly put it down, pick up another, put it down, push the whole lot around with his beak, pick up a third one, put it down … and finally pick up the original.

You might say that’s a bad lesson. He’s picky. A perfectionist. But consider this: perhaps he’s searching for just the right peanut, much as a writer seeks the right word, or a musician the right note, or an artist the right color. Maybe we should encourage people to be blue jays; to try on various interests and studies, to explore different jobs and sports, to find that “just-right” peanut.

Be good stewards of Mother Earth and share the wealth.

As humans, we’re poor planners when it comes to our futures. Experts who manage employee benefit programs know this. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute, about 70 percent of workers save something for retirement, but fewer than half seriously try to figure out if they’re saving enough.

Blue Jays have us on this one. They plan well. It’s not their fault that sometimes those plans go awry, but even then, they end up planning for their children’s future – and ours. You see, scientists now think jays may be the missing link to how forests expand. A blue jay can stuff multiple nuts and seeds into his mouth and throat. Then, because there’s no way to eat everything, he hides some. According to biology researcher W. Carter Johnson, late of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, this avian Johnny Appleseed may well be responsible for rebuilding forests lost to fire or to human greed – all because he stores his wealth by “planting” seeds and nuts where they can multiply.

If that’s not a good lesson to learn, I don’t know what is.

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