Although they are known for their raucous willingness to tell off the whole world in no uncertain terms, Steller’s Jays have their gentler, more reserved side. As a matter of fact, these flamboyant blue and black-crested jays have an almost Victorian sense of modesty, at least when it comes to bathing.
The Victorians, you may recall, believed that people should expose almost no skin in public beyond their faces, necks, and hands. Ankle-showing was strictly taboo, not to mention exposing anything higher up the ladder, so to speak. People in Victorian times did not even have legs. At best, they had limbs, and then only covered ones.
Yet the Victorians recognized that people needed to get some exercise, and swimming was very good exercise indeed. So at seaside resorts, the beaches would be lined with bathing machines for rent. The bathing machines looked like gypsy wagons, with horses in the front and stairs in the back. A customer would enter the wagon fully clothed and change into a bathing costume in the dark. Then the covered wagon would be backed down the beach until its steps were in the sea, at which point, the suitably costumed client would open the back door, climb down the steps, and enter the water. By the time anyone on shore could see the bather, he or she was already waist-deep in the ocean.
Yesterday at Yesler Cove, I inadvertently witnessed the Steller’s Jays’ version of a bathing machine. I was sitting on my camp stool on the edge of the cove, drinking in the serenity of a pond hidden from the city, protected from the winds, and completely screened from public view. The only other living things around me were the inhabitants of Yesler Swamp: A Great Blue Heron stood on a log across the way, still as a statue. A couple of Mallards dabbled in the mirror waters, and a few early-spring frogs peeped in the warmth of the sun. Deeper in the swamp, I could hear a few jays scolding, but I didn’t pay any attention because jays in the swamp always seem to be scolding someone.
Then, right over my head, passed a comet of blue and black feathers. It was a Steller’s Jay gliding in to perch on a dead branch on the far shore. He was soon joined by another jay and then another. The jays kept coming in a steady stream, like an invisible conveyor belt delivering finished jays to the shore. The birds were all congregating above a pool screened by numerous bare branches that dipped down into the water. One by one, they entered the pool and began to splash about. I counted up to eight at a time in the bathing area.
I froze, knowing if they became aware of me, they would all leave—irritated and scolding, no doubt. For half an hour, the birds took turns bathing in their secluded pool. Some of the jays flapped their wings energetically, throwing up exuberant streams of water. Others soaked themselves more sedately, patting the water with their wings and surely not washing behind their ears.
When they were done, the Steller’s Jays flew up into the high branches, where the sun could make the water drops glisten and eventually evaporate. There they perched, like living sapphires, as I breathed a quiet “oh” for such beauty in the world.