Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2011

Jaybirds train Neill to shoot snakes

Back before the Mighty Muddy crested, while Betsy and I were working to move antiques upstairs in case the levee broke, I was distracted by a constant noise outside one afternoon, across the driveway in the persimmon thicket.

I walked to the door to check it out, and it was bluejay noise – that loud, raucous screaming and fussing which jaybirds are known for amongst country homeowners. But these jays were staying in one place, sounded like.

From rural living experience, I knew that bluejays squawking continually in one place probably means one of three things is present: a cat, an owl or a snake. On the chance that it was the latter, I reached for SouthPaw, my left-handed Remington 870 behind the door, pumped a shell into the chamber, and walked into the driveway, looking for the jaybird crowd.

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There they were, twenty feet up in a tree, flying around, diving at a limb, or lit in the limbs close to their target, which seemed initially to be just a thicker branch, with a bluejay moving on it, flapping but not flying. The birds doing the squawking were all facing that one dancing jay. What was going on?

Then a part of the limb moved beneath the flapping bird, and I realized that it was indeed a snake, that high up in the tree – and the serpent had caught him a jaybird for supper! The supper entree was trying mightily to get away, but the snake was coiling around him, as his friends screamed vile bluejay epithets at the unusually high-up snake.

Now, I am no fan of jaybirds: they’re mean, and will drive a momma bird off of her nest, then attack and kill her offspring therein, including little doves. Yet I am also no fan of snakes, especially those who climb for a living, here at a time when Betsy and I were moving upstairs.

I raised SouthPaw and tried to dislodge the serpent from the branch with the edge of the pattern, so as to leave its intended victim intact. Not to be: in all the struggling, the bluejay hit the ground first, as the snake – looked like a moccasin, actually – hung onto the limb, though wounded. When I finished it off with a second shot, it died hanging exactly halfway across the limb, and is still up there, two weeks later.

When I took Betsy out to look at it, she commented, “Do you think he knows something we don’t know, about high water coming?”

No, I told her, I have seen one five-foot highland moccasin which was so high up in a pecan tree that Big Robert had to shoot three times straight up with that long-barreled Model 31 Remington he used for squirrel hunting. We figured the serpent was also up there hunting for squirrels.

Since a snake lies atop a high branch, I reckon a squirrel might just scamper right into the fangs. However, such a position also protects a snake from a gunshot, unless you prick him enough to make him move and expose a shootable part, which Daddy did.  

Then the next week, when I was out strapping down the propane tank to keep it from floating off if the levee broke, I suddenly heard the jaybirds beginning that same raucous ruckus, under the cedar trees. I stepped to the house, grabbed Southpow again, pumped in a shell, and went to investigate.  

Sure enough, those jays had a big chicken snake identified as it crawled along the ground, this time. I settled its hash quickly; I normally don’t kill non-poisonous snakes, but a big chicken snake can make you hurt yourself, if you come upon it unexpectedly.

Then I realized: those durn jaybirds were training ME, to come shoot their snakes for them!

It’s happened one other time, when I potted a blue runner with a .22 rifle from the upstairs balcony.  Then I got another chicken snake by myownself.

Yet I don’t look at it now as them training me to shoot snakes; it’s more like I’ve coached the jaybirds to find snakes out here at Brownspur, and to reveal them unto me for appropriate action. I still don’t like bluejays, but they can be useful.