How a Baby Bird Stole our Hearts
It is not every day that a ball of fluff enters your heart and takes you by the hand and leads you into a world you could not possibly have imagined. This is a diary about a baby blue jay we rescued, and how we as a family, six of us, raised this young nestling to adulthood.
Along the way, there were adventures that threatened our adopted charge — and gave us a goodly share of anxiety. As a bonus, we got to meet first-hand the lively gang of young and old blue jays living in oak woods that framed our first garden.
That was 50 years ago in a brand new suburb of Long Island. Its backyard featured a lawn big enough for hit-or-miss badminton games and, behind that, a scruffy area with an old jungle gym and piles of cast-off leaves that eventually gave us rich compost and earthworms.
Native and non-native shrubs and trees were clustered in groups along the property line. They offered comfortable perches for newly fledged birds, and safe hideaways for them to view the great world beyond the nest, and spots for afternoon naps, too. Berries and seeds came along in season.
But the real action that summer took place on our back porch. Once Gork began exploring our world, other birds soon learned there was easy feeding here. Our big round redwood table, summer anchor for peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich lunches and family cookouts, became an exclusive, unruly banquet for birds.
The memories of that golden summer half a century past had long since slipped into mists. Serendipitously, as we packed for a recent move, we found my diary and some old photos of those days stashed in the bottom of a box in our attic.
As I read my entries, I began to relive the discoveries we made as a family: the caring, the worries, the suspense, the laughter, and the final twist. And so I am sharing with you this small tribute to a plucky survivor.
The story begins on Sunday, July 8, 1973.
1. The Rescue
The jay had been squawking for over an hour. It was, otherwise, a summer Sunday like any other. The kids were making the rounds of the neighborhood with friends. We were at peace, puttering, loafing.
Except for that incessant squawking. Was there a cat around? Vaguely we wondered where the neighbors’ cats were hiding. Half-heartedly we checked the grounds, but finding none in their usual nooks we chalked the squawks up to ill temper.
Only after the jay stopped did we pay attention. The sudden sharp absence of noise and a call to us from our nine-year-old son, Steven, to come see what he had found under a bush got us moving.
There, half-hidden in the underbrush was a bundle of fluff smaller than a tennis ball, clear-eyed, unafraid, right wing drooping. He made no move to run but gazed on us with frank interest. Only when we tried to catch him did he prove fleet of foot, if not of wing.
He dashed through the bushes, instinct apparently telling him that a precarious freedom was more desirable than capture by Big People. It was about the only instinct he seemed to possess at that point, for later events would show that he was unafraid of cats.
When he tried to fly, he didn’t stay up for long. His tail was no more than a stick, and no matter how he tried to flap his wings, he would thud to the ground. After a chase in and around shrubbery, we captured him, a bit rudely, with a small pail and a cover.
We tried to put him on the branch of an oak tree, a few feet up from the ground, thinking his parents could find him there. But we couldn’t manage to get him balanced enough to perch properly. Perhaps that droopy wing was causing trouble, or maybe he didn’t yet know what was expected of him as a bird.
He held on tentatively, but when we let go, he swayed, swung round the branch and, for a brief moment, hung upside down like a bat, observing us with those innocent, appealing eyes.
We couldn’t help but laugh at his absurd position before he floated gently to the ground. He ran a bit, but he was tired by now and had lost some of his spunk. It was easy to catch him a second time. Gingerly we cupped our hands around him and carried him to an empty rabbit cage set on a wood and wire mesh bench.
He did not resist when we placed him in the cage with a dish of water. Judging by his immaturity, we assumed he had fallen or been elbowed out of the nest a few days before he was due to leave.
Again, he looked at each of us with frank curiosity, innocent, completely devoid of fear. We found that by touching his breast he would climb onto our fingers and could perch there if we gently clamped his claws with a thumb to help him balance. We marveled that this wild creature should accept us so readily.
We had no idea that this bird would enter our lives and steal our hearts so completely.
We moistened dog food and put it in the cage. This is probably less palatable to a baby jay than cherries or grapes or bugs or sunflower seeds, but it is nutritionally complete and it fills the tummy. Since we occasionally cared for animals from a nearby environmental center, we kept a supply of dry dog food in the pantry.
We assumed he would feed himself, but when he did not touch the food, we guessed he was still too young to have mastered that operation.
We tentatively touched his beak with small mouthfuls of food. He opened wide, and we could see the pink insides of his gullet and his long, shiny, pointed tongue that darted back and forth.
But he still couldn’t figure out how to get the food down. Gingerly we pushed a fingerful of food into his beak, nudging the food to the back of his throat. Ah-h-h. Ah-h, that was the touch. He gulped the moistened dog food greedily, squealing and flapping his wings as he worked it down to his stomach.
If a fingerful was too big or the food too pasty he would have to stop a moment and swallow hard, though this did not particularly upset him. The point was, his empty stomach was being satisfied, if a bit clumsily.
Toward evening some jays (self-appointed lookouts?) arrived and began a series of calls. While daylight turned dusky we pondered the fate of this foundling. As the sky darkened and the world grew quiet he fell asleep, snug in our cupped hands.
We placed him gently in the cage. Tomorrow we would figure things out.
To read the complete diary with photos and meet the cast of characters, go to the black banner across the top and click on Gork, a Special Blue Jay.
Copyright @ A Herons Garden 2022