How a Baby Blue Jay Stole our Hearts One Summer
It’s not every day that a ball of fluff enters your heart and leads you into a world that 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 did not 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 our 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 settled down and fell asleep, snug in our cupped hands.
We placed him gently in the cage. Tomorrow we would figure things out.
2. Getting Acquainted
Monday, July 9
We visit him often. We take turns feeding him. Not formally. Since this helpless bird has beguiled all of us, whoever is around is eager to help. After some attempts, we are becoming adept at picking up a fingerful of moistened dog food and coaxing him over when he squawks.
When he opens his beak, we are getting better and better at pushing the food into his wide open craw. Every feeding is accompanied by wing-flapping and croaking and excited gurgling as we push the food deep. He is the best fed little bird around.
There are six of us to take care of his needs. From a bird’s perspective, there are two Big People, the parents, and four Little People, children ranging in age from six-year-old twins, Susan and Philip, to nine-year-old Steven and eleven-year-old Ellen.
He is not shy. Though he might be the beggar, he does not beg at all. He expects his food at regular intervals and his squawks demand it in no uncertain terms. These squawkings earn him the name Gork, or Gork-Gork.
We can’t resist this small bundle of life. One of us is always nearby. There is something tender and appealing about having him climb onto your finger and settle down for a meal and a conversation, like nuzzling a horse or cuddling a cat, though he abhors being petted. We still steady him with a thumb clamped gently on his claws.
We begin to talk to him. He answers us with little peeps. Not demanding squawks, but little baby peeps that remind us he is helpless, even though he doesn’t always think so.
He is creeping into our hearts. We are delighted, but anxious, too.
Tuesday, July 10
The wild blue jays are keeping a wary lookout. They never come down to the cage, but they squawk and scream when we go near it. We welcome their noise, because the cat has discovered Gork and regularly jumps atop the cage and patrols it. The jays’ squawking alerts us to the danger and we shoo the cat, an empty gesture.
We wish that the jays would be more aggressive, but they never come close enough to peck at the cat when he prowls. They cannot, unfortunately, see the cat when he stations himself under the stiff, thick branches of the dwarf cotoneaster near the cage.
Thursday, July 12
Gork’s tail is growing longer! Once he grows a respectable tail he will be able to fly. He is becoming aware that there is a world outside his cage. He begins to talk to the blue jays who are still patroling, though they are keeping watch with less zeal than previously. Have they figured out that he is being taken care of?
Sometimes they seem to answer him when he squawks but we cannot be sure. We worry that the cage is a lonely place for him without the closeness and warmth of his siblings and the comfort of his parents. He is in a void between two worlds, but his identity as a blue jay is establishing itself and with it a growing restlessness.
Friday, July 13
He is growing stronger. He hops around the cage, and the restlessness of all wild creatures when they are confined is rising in him. It seems especially painful at night, when the other jays are busy with their last feedings of the day, and the young are twittery and gossipy, and the air is filled with the mewings and sighs of birds before bedtime.
We put two perches in the cage. Now he regularly hops to the upper perch, sometimes flitting back and forth between the upper and the lower perch. His wing seems to have healed. It no longer droops and he moves it easily.
After feedings, sometimes he edges close to the door of his cage. He understands that he can begin to maneuver on his own, but his tail is not yet grown in. He outwits us more than once, streaking past us to try test flights that invariably end in a thud and a skid. We learn to close the door quickly.
Monday July 16
We show him a whole (unhusked) sunflower seed. He is puzzled at first, hesitates, does not know what to do with it. He must make a decision, then. Big People are giving it to him, and Big People have been feeding him good food. This could be worth while. He gulps it whole.
He is warm, and when he settles down on our fingers his feathers are soft and his nails, as he digs in, are prickly in a gentle sort of way. He uses our fingers like a napkin after eating, wiping his beak on ether side of our fingers with a fast, deft motion. When he is older he will use the top of a fence post instead.
We laugh at the funny way he cocks his head when we talk to him. It is the only way he has to look at us, of course, because of the position of each eye. His unique avian brain takes care of reconciling his visions of the world.
Sometimes a bluish, translucent film crosses his eye momentarily, and we wonder if he is changing focus, or resting his eyes without actually closing them. We check some bird books out of the library and learn that this is the nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, that birds and some other animals have. It cleans and moistens the eyes without totally obstructing vision.
When he stretches, he opens his wings and his legs get long and Philip says he looks like an eagle. His neck is skinny when he stretches it.
Tuesday July 17
Steven, who is nine and who seems to bump into trouble, is feeding Gork today when Gork decides to make a break for it. Hey, he cries, come back here. He runs to catch him, but as soon as he puts his hands on Gork, the bird utters shrill alarm cries that sound like the end of the world is coming.
Instantly an entire company of blue jays appears in the trees, no less than ten feet from Steven, screaming at him from all sides, threatening him.
We run out to find Steven cowering under the onslaught, though none of the jays follows through on threats. Bob, who is one of the Big People, cups his hands over Gork, who immediately calms down. The darkness that suddenly surrounds him quiets his cries. Perhaps he too is stunned by the commotion. He settles gratefully into his cage.
Apparently the fierce jays in the trees decide there is little point in threatening one of the Big People now that Gork is quiet. Their cries subside into an occasional indignant harumph-squawk.
Thursday, July 19th
Gork is bleeding. One nail is broken and another appears to be torn out. We are devastated. We naturally suspect a cat but there is no sign of damage to the cage. Did he get them caught somewhere in the cage? Did the cat pull at them through the wires as Gork climbed around the cage? We will never find out.
His perches are covered with maroon drippings. The foot is sore so he pulls it up under his belly As a result, his underside is blackened with blood by the time we get to him. Ellen puts a shallow dish of warm water in the cage and gently lowers Gork into the water. He does not like this at all. He leaves the dish and refuses to go in again.
By noon the bleeding has stopped but the foot is still sore. He rests it gingerly down or retracts it and stands one-legged. Sore foot or no, again, he darts out of the cage for an escape flight around evening. Again, he lets himself be picked up from the ground and returned to the cage. Again, the miserable restlessness takes hold as night comes on, until he jumps on his perch, tucks his head under his wing and goes to sleep.
Soon the time will come when he will hop to his upper perch and fly out past us. His first successful flights – test flights – will no doubt surprise and delight him.
The flights will prove to him that what he is born to do he can in fact do. The slow, steady beating of his wings will be labored, but he will learn that he can stay above ground indefinitely and even maneuver. For now, until his tail finishes growing, he allows us to put him back in the cage after unsuccessful tries. The day will come when he will take his place in the free world of a blue jay.
3. Growing Up
Friday July 20
Gork decides to make a break for it early in the day. The cage is becoming more and more intolerable. Soon after his midmorning meal he flies over Ellen’s head and up to a tree. This time he makes sure he stays out of reach.
He sits and talks to us in very small, sweet peeps. We can’t help but wonder if he is telling us how he is feeling and why he must do this and asking us to understand and please keep feeding him. He seems a small bird indeed.
It is as big a moment for us as it is for him.
We keep close watch on him once he begins to move on. He hops from branch to branch, sometimes slipping or tripping, or getting himself entangled, or catching his wing on a branch. At least the oaks are easier to maneuver through than the hawthorne tree, closest to his cage, but armed with long thorns.
He keeps talking to us in that small voice, tiny plaintive squeaks with his baby bill half open. Though we have watched his progress from a ball of fluff to a handsome fledgling with a tail, he looks every bit a baby up there, tiny on the branches of the oaks, with those almost soundless musical peeps.
When he wants to feed he is easily coaxed off the branches onto our fingers and back to the porch. He settles down and stays awhile and continues to talk in little yips and squeaks. He is very talkative today. Is he telling us about his adventures? We realize he needs caresses and reassurance as much as he needs food.
He is a lonesome bird in a woods full of birds. He does not know his way around. He explores tentatively. He seeks jays for company but we are not sure he is finding any. He belongs to no bird he can talk to. Is he telling us all this?
Later in the day I hear a plaintive cry. I look out the second-story bedroom window to see a juvenile jay sitting on a telephone wire pleading for food from an old jay. Is it Gork? Has he found a mother or father? The old jay pecks at him and flies away.
The young jay follows. From tree to tree they fly, the young jay in hot pursuit of the older one. From somewhere he must have found some food. Did the old jay finally feed him? He is not quick enough. He pauses and a starling snatches the bread and pecks him away.
I wonder, then, if Gork will be an outcast because we have taken him in. Will other jays, other birds, always avoid him?
The young bird flies back up to the telephone wire and pesters the old one for food again. This time he gets a smart, sharp peck that costs him a tummy feather or two. A closer look tells me that this bird is more fully developed, longer and slimmer than Gork.
And then I smile. I spy our own Gork, sitting on the high fence and taking the entire scenario in with that clear-eyed gaze of his. No fear or alarm – simply observing and, apparently, learning.
Some time later I see him pestering some old jays for food. They give him sidelong glances and ignore him. It is easy to imagine their reactions to the little beggar.
Around seven we feed him and lead him to his cage and fasten the door. But the old restlessness is back. He begs for food again, wings flapping, beak open.
He is a consummate faker. We should know that. He has learned that feigning hunger will bring us around and get us to open the cage door. We know this. He has become an accomplished beggar but he begs like a king ordering his vassals. From the beginning he has had the upper hand.
He squawks. So we open the cage door to feed him, though we know he has eaten well. If he tries anything, we can outwit him, we say. We crowd around the cage to block any chance of escape.
He feints and darts out, using six-year old Susan’s stretched-out hand as a sort of runway. He hesitates a moment, gets his bearings and pushes his way through. He flies, the labored flight of a young bird, up to the nearest tree. He is gone for the night.
An hour later the wind picks up, lightning and thunder begin, and heavy rain falls.
Saturday July 21
The morning is still. The rain beats down steadily. Most birds are hidden. I go out several times with a dish of food, calling for Gork. Occasionally I hear something faint that sounds like an answer, but I can’t locate the call and I cannot see much in the dripping trees
I see the cat prowling.
At about 9:30 I call and get what I think is a definite answer, a small, sad squawk that sounds like it could come from Gork. Still, I cannot see him. I call again. He answers again. Still he remains hidden. We call back and forth several times.
Each time he calls his squawks seem to come from a different location. Is he heading toward me? Does the cat hear this? Will the cat be quicker than me? I am at a loss.
Another call, and this one comes from the ground. It’s close. I waste no time, for I know the cat will waste no time. I prowl through weeds and brush looking for him.
He is thoroughly soaked, hunkered down, hidden under the evergreen branches of a yew. His wing and tail feathers are so matted they look like rough sticks and there appears to be no down on him.
After last night’s escape, I do not know if Gork is still tame enough to climb on my hand, so I keep my distance as I feed him a few mouthfuls of food, which he gulps quickly. Then I take a chance and stroke his belly gently as I croon sing-song to him. He readily hops onto my finger. His right claw is hurting him so he rests it gingerly, putting almost no weight on it. He lets me carry him across the yard with barely a flutter of his water-soaked wings.
I do not want to put him in his cage yet, since I am afraid this will upset him. It is still raining and we are by now both drenched. I bring him with me into the house to dry off. He is curious, looks around with that same wide-eyed clear gaze that is so familiar to us.
But the usual household noises – water running, dishes clattering, strange footsteps — begin to upset him. There is nowhere for him to perch. He makes a feeble attempt at flying to reach the door but fails.
By now the family is involved. We bring him outside and immediately he tries to fly from us. He is so sodden with water, he falls to the floor of the porch. After a few halfhearted escape-hops, he lets us pick him up.
We put him in the cage then, and he relaxes visibly. For the first time in days, he is perhaps relieved to be in a familiar place, safe. He eats a little, drinks a little and begins to preen himself, to straighten out his wing feathers by sliding his beak along each of them, one at a time.
He is so tired he does not try his upper perch until later in the day, preferring to stay low in his cage and doze and preen.
Once in a while he pokes at a “preen gland” at the base of his tail to get some oily wax onto his bill. When he runs his bill along a feather, some oil will be left on it. The preening and the oil will help keep the veins of each feather properly aligned, so the feather stays healthy and waterproof until he molts.
His wing feathers are so matted they look like they are battered or missing. His tail is barely recognizable, the feathers are so soaked. It takes a long time and a lot of preening by Gork to get his feathers in order. Not until evening does he look like a normal bird.
The old longing to be free, to fly into the oaks, returns. But he has little energy left now to try an escape. For the present he is happy to be dry and safe in his cage.
Sunday, July 22
Having fully recovered by this morning from Friday night’s ordeal, Gork is ready to take on the outside world again. He eats and chats and flies off. We try to coax him down from his perches in trees but he teases us by staying just out of reach, hopping a branch or so away each time one of us gets close.
Once he seems about to land on Steven’s head but Steven ducks and Gork changes course, neatly maneuvering into a nicely banked turn that lands him in another tree. He comes and goes as he pleases, and we are there, like handmaidens, to feed him when he is hungry.
Then, around lunch time we hear the bell and the unmistakable squawk of a bird in distress. The cat next door has lain in wait under our porch, as he usually does these days, since bits of food fall through the cracks in the porch floor during feedings. Occasionally birds scavenge there.
Today his patience has rewarded him. He catches an unwary bird feeding. We are sure it is Gork. We run out of the house yelling for him to drop the bird.
The cat stops in his tracks, looks at us brazenly and runs for cover. We chase him, tearing across the yard. He stops momentarily and Ellen gets a quick look. She calls out, That doesn’t look like Gork. It’s a black bird.
The bird stops crying momentarily. I run for the cat, hoping there is still time to save the bird, but I am too late. The cat has already disappeared under a bush with its prize.
We cage Gork early that evening. The cat is still on the prowl and we are leaving the house for several hours. The thought that a cat might catch Gork in an unwary moment is unbearable to all of us.
Gork is restless but not too unhappy about being caged. On impulse we feed him peanut butter from our fingers through the openings in his cage. He takes a nibble and squawks and flaps his wings and hops about, crazy for more. He gobbles all the peanut butter we give him, and while we are gone he will polish off the remains stuck to the screen.
4. Seeking Independence
Monday, July 23
Gork surprises me this morning. He flies away as soon as I take him out of his cage without a greeting or request for breakfast. It is a strong-winged, long, steady flight with not the slightest hint of labor but with a big helping of independence.
Fifteen minutes later he is back for food. He apparently is not so independent that he will relinquish a steady diet. He gulps several mouthfuls, then mews for water.
Too late I realize I forgot the water dish. I carry him on my finger into the kitchen. This will be for just the briefest moment, I think. We’ll be outside before there is a chance for another bad scene.
He tolerates my motion, wary but not afraid. We’ll manage, we’ll manage, I think. But the screen door bangs shut. Panicked, he leaps from my fingers to the screen, clutching at it with his claws.
I try to get him down but he flies higher, beating his wings against the ceiling in a frenzy, instinct telling him to reach for a sky he now realizes he cannot see. He has been in the wild world long enough to relish his freedom and his spirit can never go back to a roof over his head.
I open the screen door wide and beckon to him to follow me outside. He freezes. He will not come down from his high perch on the top of the heavy kitchen door, instinct still calling him to stay high, to seek for a sky. He will not budge from this, the highest, safest perch inside.
I climb on a chair to try to reach him. He backs away, out of my reach. I croon to him, coax him to come onto my finger. Eventually he settles down and I bring him outside. He wastes no time leaving. We wonder if he will come back.
Hunger brings him back, of course. For a long time there will be a push-pull between freedom and food. An hour after his hurried getaway, he returns, gobbling and gurgling the food and water I’d left outside. He flies off immediately, no chatting, no confidential mewing. The independent beggar!
Fifteen minutes later I hear his squawk from the oaks in the rear of the yard. I do not know how I recognize his call. It is rare that I mistake another bird’s call for his.
He is perched on the children’s monkey bars. When I come toward him, he flies back toward the house and lands on the gutter along the roof of the garage. Ah, so he is leading me a merry chase! Catch me if you can!
Or perhaps not. Perhaps he wants to show me something. We exchange a few croons and squawks and mews, and I hope no one is overhearing us. Then he takes a bath in the gutter water. Is it his first? I wonder. We leave bowls of water in his cage, but they seem untouched.
He drinks a few drops before he starts. Then he wallows in the water as though in a bathtub. His wings and tail, and the down on his stomach become thoroughly soaked. Then he shakes himself, splashing droplets that shine in the sunlight.
He wallows and shakes, wallows and shakes, fluffs his feathers. Then he grooms himself, picking at the feathers on his breast and straightening his wing feathers by running his bill quickly along them.
He hesitates a moment, then takes off, a slow, heavy flight, for his tail is still wet. Back to the monkey bars he flies to luxuriate in the warmth of sunbeams. Monkey bars also make sturdy perches.
He must feel good after that bath, for he comes back to the porch when he is dry, and we talk and he eats and drinks. Then he takes another bath.
Tuesday, July 24
He has learned that the door to the house is where we come and go. This afternoon he is entirely on his own, spurning our offers of food and companionship.
But we are delighted to see that he has added another instinct to his behavior: when a blue jay sounds its raucous cry, he flies immediately to safety, whether he’s had one mouthful of food, or four, or none.
We also see him taking food into his beak, placing it in his claws first, then pecking at it, though this method of feeding needs some refinement. He is becoming skilled at spearing a mouthful of food with his beak, tossing his head deftly back and opening his beak at just the right time to work the food down into his gullet and swallow it.
The afternoon becomes silent and we see him catching a bug or two. As evening approaches, we call him down from the trees with food and water and peanut butter. He shows no objection to being put in his cage.
He realizes too late that there is no escape. Though he seems contented when he first settles in, feelings of entrapment grow on him and he begins wildly flying from perch to wall, jumping on the door and clawing at it in restlessness that is close to frenzy.
The cat ambles by and discovers the caged bird. We watch as he jumps to the door of the cage, hanging on with claws extended and the gleam of attack in his eyes. Will Gork react? For a long time he prowls the top of the cage testing for entry. Gork shows no signs of concern. He is still restless to be gone. Apparently wariness of cats is not an instinct he has acquired yet.
But he is becoming more wary of sounds and movements, and he displays some of the nervousness that characterizes birds who want to keep from being a meal for predators. Still, the evening’s events cause us to wonder if our kindness may prevent him from understanding all the perils that face a small bird in a wild world.
Wednesday, July 25
When Bob tries to walk with him this morning, he flies off his finger and disappears into the woods. We think the bonds are loosening, but we have been thinking that for a while and we have been fooled.
Twenty minutes later he is back chirping from the overhead wires. When I call him, he comes readily. He gobbles several beaksful, wings flapping like a baby, and he settles down on my finger. Maybe the bonds are not loosening so much. The promise of tasty food and a full belly is a big draw.
The shadow of a bird flying overhead to the east startles him, and a fluttering moth tempts him. He straightens up, alert, ready to fly. We rejoice that he is beginning to acknowledge a world that he will soon have to face on his own.
Meanwhile the cat is investigating the open cage. As long as I am around, he will keep his distance, a good thing, since Gork still does not seem to consider him an enemy.
He comes back so hungry he almost topples as he makes a crash landing into the hawthorne tree, squawking like a baby jay.
While he is dining on a dish of dog food I put on the table and drinking drainpipe water, another blue jay watches the feeding from the porch rail only a few feet away from us.
Is he looking for an easy meal? His perch on the rail proves to be too close for comfort. He flies to the overhead wires where he can watch the action on the porch from a safe distance.
I turn my back and Gork is gone. He makes a distinction these days between starving hunger and comfortable hunger. He gobbles the first two mouthfuls, flapping his wings fast, instinctively, then he pecks at the rest, practicing his toss and swallow routine. Or simply flies off.
He may still act like a baby with us, but he is squawking louder like an older jay, and he is looking more sleek, and more like a juvenile blue jay that’s been out of the nest a while. His facial markings are still indistinct but much of the time his crown is up, which makes him look more grown-up.
He is becoming a tease, too. He begs like a baby for food when he perches on overhead wires, but when you beckon him down, he stays put. Back and forth, he begs, we call. So this is a game. And he is apparently enjoying it immensely. Well, we can play the game, too. We turn toward the house and say Bye Bye. He is down off the wire and on the porch in a flash.
He is fully enjoying our company these days, probably because he knows he can manipulate us and he feels confident he can leave any time. He comes back every half hour to 45 minutes, takes a gulp or two, enjoying chatter and companionship as much or more than the food. And perhaps he takes comfort knowing we are there. We are an anchor in an unpredictable world.
But there are limits to comfort and closeness. After a few minutes on the porch, he flies off and talks to us from a perch in a tree a safe distance away.
At 7:30 he visits us for a snack and leaves. We see him no more this night.
Thursday, July 26
We hear him squawking a few moments after we get up. Does he hear our voices through the open window? Or does he have a time clock in his head tuned to when he expects us to be up?
He cries from a distance, then from the hawthorne, then stands on the porch rail and flaps his wings and squawks in great distress. I have trouble making his food quickly enough to satisfy him. Again, it seems that he is the royal beggar, and I am the maid servant.
Still, I decide that tomorrow I must have the food ready. He has jumped to the porch floor on occasion, and unless I am out there, the cats are on the prowl, especially now that they are learning his comings and goings.
Another jay comes with him but he scoots away as soon as I open the door. Gork looks like a ball of fuzz again today, and he is starved. It must take more energy sleeping outside than in a snug cozy cage. Hunger eased, when he hears the other jay call to him he flies to the jays in the trees. We inwardly cheer his independence and his connections with jays.
Steven brings a friend over to show off Gork. To our dismay, Gork flies directly to his friend and lands on his shoulder. How quick he is to desert us, his faithful caretakers. He accepts bread from him, too. The turncoat! We are a little hurt at his defection. Is he so tame he will go to anyone who might feed him? Could this become a problem?
We determine to handle him as little as possible. He returns for a meal an hour or so later. He eats – and waits. We do not pick him up to talk as we usually do. He nudges Bob’s finger a few times as if to say, C’mon, pick me up.
Of course Bob gives in.
In fact, at one point during the day Gork allows Ellen to put him in his cage, though she leaves the door open. He is wet and shivery, she says. He fluffs his feathers and only stays a moment before he flies off.
He has peanut butter and cornmeal for supper, but he is not terribly hungry, perhaps because he has just caught a caterpillar, eaten half and dropped the other half. Does he have to learn how to hold it, or does the caterpillar taste bad? Then he is gone.
Friday, July 27
He eats a little, pecking at the food instead of having it shoved into his mouth. He’s growing up at last, I think. A few drops of rain fall. It is to be a wet morning. Later I look around for him and call him but cannot find him.
As the rain becomes heavy I look out the window and see him in the hawthorne tree. He has come home. But this is a wet home. I go outside and he hops onto my finger. As I walk with him to the cage, he flies from me. Either he no longer likes me to walk while on my finger, or he does not like the rain pelting him or he cannot bear the thought of the cage.
When I try to retrieve him from a cherry tree, he flutters out of reach toward the young hemlock trees, skidding down one of the boughs and out of sight. He is wet and soggy, prime bird bait for a cat if cats prowl on rainy days. I go to retrieve him but he has disappeared. I call him but there is no sound. I see him nowhere. I hear him nowhere.
He is calling by the time Ellen comes out to look for him. She finds him on the lower branch of a rhododendron, unable to fly now. She picks him up, claps her thumb over his claws as she holds him on her fingers and puts her other hand over him. He submits to her care and she places him in his cage.
He remains there, preening, until he dries out and the rain has turned misty. Then the cage becomes intolerable. He no longer sits contentedly, occasionally chirping for attention. The restlessness returns.
Meanwhile, the cat is lying in wait under the cotoneaster near the cage. Gork hops nervously from perch to perch in his cage, and every blue jay screeching from the free world intensifies his longing. Cat or no cat, we give him some food and set him free, confident he can now fly well enough to escape a prowling cat.
Later, he brings a couple of friends for lunch. They fly away, however, before lunch is served. Still later, a couple of moochers mimicking Gork’s cries fly down. They fool us so completely, we begin to get more food.
Rascals! Are they trying to cash in on a good thing? When we put food out, however, they disappear. We decide they are too wild to take a chance at meeting us. Will they overcome their fear of humans by hobnobbing with Gork?
We have forgotten our resolve against handling him and we are picking him up and holding him on our fingers. It is too satisfying for all of us – including Gork – to give it up too fast. He still likes to be coaxed, and he likes playing his game of Bye Bye from the trees, winging his way to the porch when we turn our backs. He pecks at his food nicely now, but still likes it shoved down his gullet occasionally. He jumps and flies off now when the screen door is slammed.
It is a blowy night that warns of rain. I imagine I hear him calling and I hope he hangs on.
Saturday, July 28
He comes bounding back for breakfast, apparently none the worse for his night out in the wind. He is growing up but we wish he would become a little less dependent on us. Though he now pecks at the food instead of wanting us to feed him, and he seems less willing to perch on our fingers, he still likes babying. We are trying not to hold him, but it is as hard for us as it is for him.
Despite his growing independence, Bob manages to get Gork in his cage for the night. Cats are prowling, everywhere it seems, under bushes, under benches, on fences. This bird activity must be whetting their appetites.
Sunday, July 29
When I go out to check him, Gork and the rabbit are facing each other, eyeing each other from their respective cages. Then he sits on his box, steadfastly gazing on the outer world.
At last, when he hears the mewings and whining of the birds outside, his longing to fly becomes intense. He bounces around his cage, much as a prisoner paces a cell. I open the cage. He is ready on his perch. He flies away.
Within minutes he is back squawking for a meal. Such a baby, so we abandon our determination not to hold him. It’s so comfortable for him – and us – to treat him like a baby. He is back to having much of his food shoved down his gullet and often perching on our fingers.
Monday, July 30
He seems less anxious to be held today, perhaps because his foot seems to bother him from that old injury he suffered as a baby. We see no blood, so there is no open wound. He tucks it into his breast and stands one-legged. When Bob puts him on his finger he does not grasp with that claw, exerting the barest of touches, probably for balance.
He manages well, though. We put an unshelled peanut on the table. He steadies it with his good claw and tries to peck it with his beak. It’s just too much trouble. He gives up and wants more dog food.
We shell the peanut and give him a piece. He takes a piece up to the fence rail like a prize and tries to work on it, then drops it. He works a second piece around in his beak, trying to break it up, finally gets impatient and swallows it whole. Savoring the nutmeats in a peanut will take a little more growing up.
5. The Gang Arrives
Tuesday, July 31
Foggy this morning. The birds are quiet. Just a few squawks from nestlings because a baby’s hunger knows no inclement weather. Gork shows up late. He is on the floor of the porch picking up crumbs. I drop the dish, it clatters, and he is off. The noise of the door has been frightening him, too, but this is the first time he has been so fast to react.
He comes back to the table and feeds from what I manage to collect in the dish. He pushes the dish around as he feeds, but is not frightened this time when it clatters to the porch floor. He seems to have some understanding of “cause” and “effect” and he is learning what noises he can ignore and what noises might signal danger.
A young blue jay practicing his repertoire of squawks nearby suddenly sounds like he is in pain. Gork, instantly alert, stops drinking and wastes no time flying off without a sound.
After that meager first meal he is back soon. Another bird seems to be hanging around with him but remains discreetly on the telephone wire or in the hawthorne, clicking continuously while Gork feeds on the porch. He will become a regular visitor. We call him The Clicker.
Gork pecks but he also wants a little shoved down his gullet. I mix a new batch of food while he waits on the fence. Tired of waiting, he swoops down and picks up a prize: a dry nugget of dog food that has fallen on the porch floor. He flies across the yard to work on it.
Later, I hear the boys saying, Gork-Gork, that’s not nice. Apparently he has summarily chased all other blue jays away. So he is becoming territorial about his food.
Today, six-year-old Susan feeds him. He is so hungry and her finger is so small that he swallows it along with his food. It takes such a pull to get her finger free that Gork is lifted off the table. He is not bothered at all by the freak event, nor is Susan. He continues taking food from her.
He does not come back for his last feeding at 7:30. We worry, but we remind ourselves that he is a feisty bird who has survived adventures.
The bugs begin their August serenade. I tell Philip that August is the month of bugs. August makes for happy baby blue jays, too.
Wednesday August 1
Six am and still no Gork. Is this the day he will leave us? Gork was never an early riser, we rationalize. And maybe he has found some of those August bugs. It is a quiet, misty morning. Few birds are around.
Six-twenty and he is on the porch, squawking, hopping, expecting his handout with roguish energy. How delighted we are! He feeds and begins to tell us the story of his night until the sound of a siren sends him off.
The day is clear now and the air is crackling with the sounds of hungry jays. When we hear the gurgling, frenzied cries, we know that one has been fed. So we put some dog food, pieces of pancakes and shelled peanuts on the table and spend an hour or so watching the action.
A juvenile jay waits on the telephone wire while a parent flies to the table, collects two peanuts in her beak and leaves quickly. The young one follows closely.
An old grizzled jay comes down but doesn’t stay long. We’ve seen him before and we’ve started calling him The Old Man.
A few others come for our smorgasbord. They are hesitant, but one by one they take a bite. Young jays they are, all sizes. Three of them come as a group. They remind us of Gork. We call them the Three Musketeers.
There’s a wide range of sizes, shapes and personalities. Some are round, some are skinny, some darkly marked, others lighter, though none are as sharply marked as most adults. Some are bold (at least that is the image they present). Some are wary and skittish. A skinny runty one comes and snatches a peanut from the beak of a plump one. Well, isn’t he the fresh one, we say.
Suddenly a ball of fluff and feathers makes a noisy entrance as he lands on the fence. We comment on how young and cute he is, by far the youngest we’ve seen. He squawks and the other birds, about half a dozen, jump with alarm and fly.
Then he waits – and waits until we realize this feisty bird is Gork coming for his mid-morning nip. Asserting his territorial rights again! He even practices the beginnings of a squeaky pulley cry, moving his body up and down, stretching tall and sinking low in time to the highs and lows of his call.
He wants to be served. So, like faithful attendants, we treat him to the pancakes that he relishes. When he tries to tear apart a piece but drops it, Ellen picks it up to help him. He tugs it, rudely, we think, from her fingers, much as to say, That’s mine. Gimme.
We marvel at how small and smart and cute our bird is. We decide he can take care of himself quite well for his size. He knows when to squawk, and when to be silent.
Our bird is the most wonderful (just as everyone else thinks his dog or cat – or bird – is the most wonderful). But of course, he is not our bird and never will be.
Thursday, August 2
It rains hard around 5 am. I wonder if he’ll get soaked, or if he has gotten smarter in the week or so since he got bedraggled in a rainstorm.
He does not show until 7:15. By then the Three Musketeers have been back and forth, watching, listening, and eating bread. They are quiet visitors.
Gork, by blue jay standards, is a late riser, but he comes in style, squawking and flapping his wings, looking every bit the baby I thought he was not any longer. An older jay who is feeding on the table gives him a sidelong glance, seemingly irked by the antics of this pipsqueak. He flies away.
Gork squawks and flaps and flies, asking, demanding, chasing. He does not like these other birds invading his territory but he is not sure how to scare them away. He wants the porch for his own, to come and go as he pleases. He pecks at a few mouthfuls, but preferring to be fed, he flies to the fence for a few gigantic mouthfuls served directly into his gullet.
When we are alone, he talks in that small, squeaky yet musical peep of his. He holds his leg up – that old injured claw – tucking it into his breast. Is it painful, or just tired from perching all night on tree limbs that wobble in the wind? The nails have grown, though one still looks imperfect. There is a point on each one but they are still stubby and short. Will they ever grow properly?
Later, several birds are feeding on the porch in relative harmony. I hear a plaintive squeak and take a look. All young birds they are. The handsomest, I think, stands on the table, plump and round with only faint markings around his neck.
On a chance, I call Gork. At the sound of my voice, they fly, all but the handsome one who remains to feed and chat. Am I now the guardian of Gork’s territory, the sound of my voice serving to scatter birds that have invaded?
The trees are restless. Rain falls intermittently, but the shushing of the wind is continuous. A bird calls eeeeee and Susan says it sounds like a whistling tea kettle.
Gork returns about noon ravenous and tired, sinking down on the table, then the bench, then the porch floor. He is clearly favoring his claw again and lets me examine it briefly. There seems to be only the stump of one nail and the tip of the other shows dark red in the center. We cannot figure out what is going on.
While he rests he gives me brief glimpses of his claw and squeaks (for sympathy?) Finally he fluffs himself and settles down. I sit quietly and his eyes narrow and close. He feels safe here, though he is sensitive to every little noise that breaks his doze. After a while he stretches, becomes instantly alert and lets out a rather commendable Cat Cry for one his size. He is off.
Friday August 3
Gork is on the floor of the porch, feeding with other youngsters who are silent. He is the only noisy squawker, reinforcing the reason we call him Gork.
It’s quiet and cloudy. No adult birds seem to be about, though some older birds may be quietly watching the young birds on the porch. As if on cue, the youngsters begin practicing grown-up calls – creaky squeaky pulley and crooky cat yells. Are they trying to outdo each other? As if on cue, they fly off in unison, and a parent jay flies in trailed by a frantically hungry baby.
Gork returns during the rain. He is wet but he can still fly, hops on the support piece under the table, using it as an umbrella(?) He surprises us by going toward the cage, but when we open the door he flies to the oak. As soon as we close the cage door, satisfied that he won’t be trapped, he flies in for a feeding. He is a baby again, wants us to poke the food down into his throat.
The word is out. Steven says he counted 25 jays checking out the smorgasbord on the porch when they think nobody is around and the coast is clear. Older ones restrict their visits, but the youngsters are hungrier and more innocent and do not seem to care as much if Big People or Little People, or cats, are observing them. We are beginning to recognize repeat visitors.
It is 11:30. Gork is back for only his third feeding of the day and he is taking very little at each feeding. Last Monday, he fed hungrily four times in the morning, twice in the afternoon, and twice in the evening.
Those August bugs must be keeping him content. Today he will come for only six small feedings, three in the morning, then feedings at 1:20, 4:45, and 6:45. He’s taking about half of what we used to give him.
Perhaps we have been too worried about his becoming independent. Perhaps he is just about on time in his development. Parent jays, we learn, usually feed the young birds for a month or so after they leave the nest. It’s been a little less than a month since we rescued Gork, and, of course, he left the nest earlier than he should have.
We notice that blue jay parents are casting off their fledglings lately. A whiner or a hanger-on who sounds so starved as to be in pain might get a nibble or a nip, depending on the mood of the parent.
Saturday, August 4
He wakes us from a sound sleep. He is in such a hurry to eat he tries to break a hard piece of food with his beak but can’t. His friends linger nearby. One sits on the gate until I look at him and talk. He flies away. Another perches in the hawthorne anxiously awaiting the dropping of a crumb but too wary to come down. When Gork is finished, the wary one flies in from the hawthorne for the leavings but they are scarce.
In Gork’s haste to get a moistened mouthful of dog food, I hit his bill with the fork I am using to mix the food. He is startled, as am I, but isn’t frightened. Later in the day he comes just to talk and squawk. He is not very hungry, but he makes more visits today than yesterday, about eight.
Twice we delay feeding him, once for quite a while, imitating as best we can the tough love of a mother bird. He gets angry, hopping from one to another of us, even to the porch floor to investigate cast-off peanut shells, maintaining a constant squawking and yipping. As we have said, he is a beggar but not a humble one.
We finally give him a peanut. Does he know we will eventually give in to his rantings? He works on getting bits off half the peanut. A sunflower seed he can’t figure out at all. Even after we open it and put it in his dish, he leaves it. He hasn’t yet discovered what a treat they are.
His friend hangs around and challenges him for a piece of food but Gork holds his own. The Three Musketeers we see often, and we wonder if they are having a hard time finding food. They look scrawny and gawky compared to Gork, maybe a bit older and larger and therefore on their own. But it is hard to tell. I am a softie and put out bread and graham crackers and some peanuts.
I’ve seen a Baltimore oriole for several days now methodically probing for insects on birch tree branches.
6. Breaking Ties?
Sunday August 5
He squawks and I run. He has me twisted round his claws. This has got to stop.
After he feeds and flies away at around 6:30 I hear a squawk from a tree way back in the yard. I call and he answers. The bird flies to the wire, then to the porch rail. But as soon as I come toward him he flies off and I see it is not Gork. So, other birds have learned how Gork summons me.
At 9 am Gork cheeps but I determine to ignore him. Such frantic squawking. He is demanding, but not whiny, as some of the other young birds are. All gets quiet. I think he is gone and look out to be sure. He is there, pecking at and eating the crackers he had disdained an hour ago as too dry. Score a victory for me.
Not a minute later he sees me and starts squawking again -–a short demanding rasp. No good, Gork. I am staying firm. He starts a series of peck-swallow-squawk peck-swallow-squawk, with extra squawks in between the pattern as he flies to the gutter along the eave of the roof to wet his whistle after the dry food.
Soon he settles on the porch rail to wait, knowing that inevitably one of us will come to him. He is comfortable, relaxed. There is none of the alertness about him that the other birds have as they watch and wait and swoop down for a bite, then vanish as quickly as they have come.
This is home to him. He has no fears. I am disquieted. I know the cats are around. Only this morning I found one lying in wait under the hydrangea, a thick, handsome bush next to the porch rail where Gork usually comes to feed.
So my sternness melts and I go out to him. He lets me know he will not tolerate being ignored. Dramatically he throws his food around, taking nibbles between tosses (temper tantrum?), until Philip quiets him by stuffing a healthy portion of dog food into his beak. He is satisfied. He still holds sway over us. He flies away.
Later Gork talks to Ellen from the birch trees out back. Is he complaining about the present state of affairs, objecting to the occasional intrusion of a camera?
There is a mewing in the trees all morning, and occasionally an old jay swoops down for a mouthful of bread “on the fly”, warning all and sundry with her yell. Later, it appears that feedings are taking place in midair between parent and child. It looks almost like a battle as they fly to one another and clash.
Mid afternoon we hear small peeps, go to the kitchen window to find the Three Musketeers feeding at the table on the porch, picking up bread and flying nervously away with it. They sound a lot like Gork, flapping wings, squawking, calling for food.
One of them takes bread to the porch rail, drops it and goes down among bushes to hunt for it. Bad move but the cats are gone for now.
One visitor who comes to feed from the table on a fairly regular basis is a nervous wreck. He hops and darts and cranes and twists his stretched-out neck until we expect it to swivel off. He is skinny, beady eyed, with long legs that look bowed. He is unmistakable and his erratic actions keep other birds on edge. We call him Jumpy.
Gork timidly flies down to the table and squawks pleasantly to convince Jumpy to leave. Jumpy is jumpy enough to follow Gork’s order, however nicely put. Gork can now feed on saltines in solitude.
He seems to be more and more indifferent to us as the days wear on, though he flies down when he sees one of us. But he does not want to be handled and seems restless and does not stay long. Is the wildness taking hold of him?
Bob tries to shoo him away. Gork squawks back, a demanding squawk. So Bob feels obligated to feed him,
I call through the kitchen window and he turns his head, searching for the source of my voice. Pinpointing activity or noise inside the house is still a puzzle for him.
A few starlings appear on the top of the high gate looking for a handout, sometimes swooping and chasing the young jays. They are ominous looking birds with their dark speckled bodies, longish beaks and eyes that look like beads against their faintly iridescent head feathers. They are not particularly aggressive, however, and we hope they will not return and bring friends.
Soon everyone settles down for evening.
Monday August 6
By the time Gork comes this morning, several birds have fed on the bread I put out. He squeaks softly and he looks babyish next to the others. He scratches crumbs from the table for a while, squawks, and takes only one gulpful of food before he flies away with some to work on.
He does not habitually feed heavily in the early morning, but he will usually stay for a while and chat in his confidential, murmuring way, as though catching us up on the news of the night. Not so this morning.
A sparrow feeds bread to a fledgling. The starlings come and the birds defer to them, though they are not particularly menacing. They take one step to a smaller bird on the table and he flies.
A lame blue jay visits today, his leg twisted and bent. He sits rather than stands on the porch table. We call him Leaner. Unfortunately, the food is all gone.
We are planning to be out all day and if we leave food, there is the problem of the cats, not just for Gork, but for other birds, too. We clean the porch well and put three slices of crumbled bread in the feeder and leave a mound of dog food on the top of the high gate.
When we get back the food is all gone. And one angry — or scared — bird greets us. None of those musical baby squawks. He is yelling like an old jay. He squawks and clamors, giving us a piece of his mind. Rudely, he grabs a grape we proffer and flies off.
Five minutes later he is back for another grape, somewhat mollified. Judging by his attack on the second grape, it must have taken him the entire five minutes to devour the first one. He likes grapes!
We offer him dog food, too, but he is not interested. He comes down for a couple of other feedings, gulping beaksful of food. But he is jittery, not content to sit awhile. When he takes food he is more likely to take a bite and fly up to the porch gate or even further from us to work on it. A wildness is taking over
Tuesday, August 7
At 6:30 Gork is calling softly. I’ve already put food out. When he sees me watching from inside the house he squawks and flies against the door. I do not come out. He hangs around, squawking and feeding, then grabs a mouthful and flies. Is he missing his confidential chat this morning?
I put a generous supply of bread on the table and decide to watch the day’s action from the window. Here is what I see:
A sparrow chases a grackle
One blue jay takes a peek under another blue jay’s tail, gets a menacing look from the owner and jumps away.
A timid squirrel is afraid to go on the table, though he is bigger than every bird there.
Two older blue jays erupt in a brief spat over food or feeding territory.
One blue jay chases another around a tree.
Jumpy, the lanky regular, hops nervously back and forth with food.
A blue jay we call Dropsy because he stuffs his beak with bread, then drops most of it when he tries to fly, is at it once again. He stops on the porch rail to re-arrange his booty, loses most of it, eats the rest, comes back for more and disappears, presumably with a successful haul this time.
One adult blue jay stuffs his beak and flies off and I soon hear the clamoring of young jays.
But Gork has not been back. I wonder where he is and as I watch the busy feeder at the corner of the porch, I wonder if he has learned the social niceties of blue-jay feeding: only one, or possibly two jays at a time on the feeder.
They wait their turns in trees or on wires or fences. They are so vulnerable when they feed. They jump, eyes dart, peck at the food like thieves in the night. There are no leisurely meals for birds that are at risk of becoming prey.
As if in answer to my question, later in the day I hear his little squawk-peep. He is on the table with half a dozen birds. He pecks and squawks at each one successively, but somewhat timidly, as if to remind them that this is his territory. Finally one by one they leave. A little sparrow flies down and Gork is particularly brave about shooing him off.
When he flies we see that his wing is drooping. He flies slowly and with great effort. We watch him feed on mountain ash berries. The cat is below him hiding among thick, tangled periwinkle, but Gork remains unaware of its skulking. We shoo the cat away. Gork seems to remain oblivious to the danger.
Wednesday, August 8
He is a baby again, squawking to be fed. I put some bread out for him and his friends, but he lets me know indignantly that bread is not what he wants. He will wait, thank you, while I make up his dog food. That he eats with relish.
Later I hear a pitiful squawk. I look out from the upstairs window and I see Gork on the floor of the porch. I hurry outside. He is staggering and stumbling, but he eventually makes it to the bench. Finally, after a heroic effort, he gets to the porch rail.
He lets out one loud blue jay cat call just to let the world know he is king as far as he is concerned. (And to bolster his confidence.) Then he teeters on the rail.
I am stunned. What can be wrong with him? His wing! That must be it! I beckon to him to fly to me. He starts out heavily and slowly, tries to make it to the table but misses his aim, steps into the umbrella hole and falls to the bench tucked underneath.
I put him on my finger, thinking I’d better get him to his cage. He teeters. I determine that there is nothing wrong with his wing. It’s his equilibrium, his sense of balance. He knows where I am going and I can see he doesn’t like the direction. He teeters again. But he is stubborn. He flies groggily to a low branch of the hawthorne.
I manage to get him on the table and he eats a morsel of bread and a couple of mouthfuls of dog food and rests a minute. He flies slowly and perches on a hawthorne branch. He seems to have regained some sense of balance, since he is hopping fairly quickly and surely from branch to branch.
Later a bird flies fast past the window and lands on the high fence. It’s Gork, apparently fully recovered. I sigh with relief but the episode puzzles me. Then I remember those mountain ash berries he relished. They can give a bird quite a jag as they ripen and ferment, and I did not notice until today that they are fully ripe.
They are coveted by birds. We notice that a couple of other birds don’t look so steady on their wings. Susan sees a bird fall off a telephone wire.
Later, Ellen sees a bird fly in while Gork is feeding on the table. Gork looks him in the eye. The bird jumps to one side, Gork jumps in front of him to guard the food. They keep this up for a few rounds, till the bird outmaneuvers Gork, grabs a mouthful and flies off. Apparently Gork is not such a threat.
Thursday, August 9
Gork takes one mouthful of food then yaps until I feed him like a baby.
I hear violent squawking in a tree, go into the next yard to see what’s up. After poking around I find the cat up a tree. A few stubborn blue jays scream at him from the same tree. The cat is obviously discomfited and none too sure of himself. I leave him to his own devices for getting down. At least I know where he is for a while.
I put bread out on the table and hear a little squawk. Gork proceeds to gorge himself while other blue jays watch. Meanwhile, a particularly whiney bird we call Whiney stays up in a tree and begs and flaps his wings. Gork looks at him quizzically. He chases a sparrow but allows other blue jays to join him on the table. The sparrow is not spooked and does not go far.
Gork looks to the windows of the house off and on but does not call to us.
Titmice are newcomers to our smorgasbord, two of them, parent and child. One or the other croaks like some frogs I’ve heard, or squeaks like a mouse. If you listen, it almost sounds like they are saying titmouse. There are only two, but they make a racket for their size, so it sounds like an entire flock.
The adult feeds first, then gives a piece of bread to the youngster, who is waiting in the hawthorne and flapping his wings. He flies off to eat, leaving his mother on the porch, then returns for a repeat performance.
Saturday-Sunday August, 11-12
Gork is becoming more and more wild, wary of strangers and uncomfortable if too many people are around. He becomes edgy if we bring the camera out. He no longer feels safe on the porch. He foregoes those intimate moments of sitting and chatting. He needs to put some distance between us and him. He hops off the table up to the porch rail, and from there to the hawthorne where he feels safest.
He comes so late on Saturday, not till after nine, that we wonder as we often do these days, if he has left us for good, or worse. He is late on Sunday, too, then bounces back and forth about three times in one hour, earnestly telling us something.
We decide he wants us to leave more bread or dog food out. What else can a young bird want? We do as we think he wishes. He comes back and feeds without squawking until no food is left. Meanwhile, a sparrow, a starling and other jays are also sampling his food.
When I come out with some only half-dampened dog food, he grabs it and flies, pecking at it to try to get bits of it. Another jay sees him and gives chase.
A violent storm comes up. Where do the birds go in wind and rain? And what do insects do during daylight when they aren’t singing and trying to avoid being caught by hungry birds?
There must be quite a learning period for birds, finding out what is good to eat, what is not. They seem to try anything. We’ve seen them peck holes in plastic, toss peanut shells around, inspect dead leaves closely, anything that might provide a meal after some poking.
Saturday Gork hears a mourning dove cooing. He becomes restless, distracted, finally flies away. Yet the noise of an airplane only evokes curiosity. He will cock his head from side to side to try and find it.
We are trying to find the balance between his wildness and his trust in us, if such a balance can exist. Right now we think he is lazy, depends too much on us for a handout. He probably thinks the opposite, that he is working hard to find food and we are not catering to him as he expects. Something has to give.
Early morning some blue jay comes and screams for food in the hawthorne, then leaves. I know it is not Gork as even he is not that noisy. We are learning that the loud fresh cat cry of a young blue jay is not necessarily a sign of toughness or an urgent warning. It’s more likely a sign of fear. Some yell as they swoop in for food, as if trying to bolster their own spirits or startle a predator.
Gork does not come back for his usual 7:30 evening feeding on Saturday. Nor does he come on Sunday after his 3:30 to 4 pm feeding. Perhaps he is not so dependent on us after all.
The sparrow takes advantage of the relative peace and feeds her young one on the table, rotating as she does so, probably to keep watch for possible predators.
7. August Feeding Frenzies
Monday, August 13
Gork is back early today. He must have heard the radio alarm. He feeds a bit, flies to the fence and talks but maintains his distance. At one point he forgets himself and hops on to my finger, immediately realizes his mistake and jumps off, though he still wants to talk in plaintive tones. Is he telling me how hard it is to get food? He flies off to the monkey bars where Whiney begs him for food.
They must have some sort of conference with other birds that happen to be around, for they all fly off. Gork comes back to the porch to check on the smorgasbord. I tell him I’ll bring it out. He flies off as I go toward the house, and as soon as I am inside and close the door the troop of birds arrive, waiting.
I bring bread and a dish of dog food out there. They all take the bread, Gork included, until only crumbs remain. Gork is strutting like King Tut out there, proud owner of the porch. Then the birds start eating from the food dish, four of them around it, politely taking turns.
Gork is dismayed at this unexpected turn of events. He is no longer king. He starts pleading with them. Hey, that’s my dish, he seems to say. They ignore him. Finally he jumps on the dish and squawks in low, pleading tones. One leaves, but the others are unimpressed.
Other birds visit the porch. One is Gork’s size, not quite so fluffy but comely and we have seen them flying together off and on. They seem to be quite compatible so we call him Gork’s Twin, though he does not feed with Gork, preferring to hang back, waiting for Gork in the hawthorne.
Leaner comes back off and on, usually for slim pickins,’ though he seems not to limp so much these days. Squeaky, of squeaky-pulley fame, comes in with his cries that warn of grave danger. The birds break when he arrives and some practice their squeaky calls. The Clicker comes to watch the action, barely feeds, preferring to sit on the fence rail and click away.
When the food is almost gone, a few of them grab the dish with their beaks as if they will find more food if they pick the dish up. The noise when it drops back onto the table scares them witless. They jump and fly.
And the titmice come chattering by. Youngsters are the noisiest of all.
Gork comes to beg for food on the top step of the porch like a forlorn lost little kitten. He tries to nip a bird that wants his food. Also a bird tries to get food from Gork’s empty beak as he is yapping. We think he has a little belly ache. He swallows such a big hunk of dog food he has to gulp and gulp to get it down.
He never comes back after 3 pm. Where does he go at night? During the day? Does he stay with any of The Gang?
Tuesday August 14
Gork comes early, takes a piece of bread and a piece of bird food and patiently pecks at each. I remember when he was so hungry he had no patience for pecking. Now his hunger must not gnaw at him so, or maybe he remembers the hunk he swallowed whole recently. During a second feeding around 8:30 he takes a piece away and another bird, possibly Whiney gives chase.
Around noon he spends about 15 minutes loafing in the hawthorne. He calls me and I come out but he isn’t hungry. He wants company and that feeling of security that comes from knowing we are nearby.
Despite barking dogs, airplanes, banging doors, children yelling and The Gang calling, as I sit on the porch with him, he dozes and stretches and preens and dozes and stretches and preens. Occasionally he catches a bug among his feathers and eats it.
I wonder if this is the quiet time around mid-day when small birds repair to their mothers for a little respite from the vigilance of gathering food and keeping eyes and ears tuned to predators and never being quite sure of what to do when they are on their own. Napping and preening over, Gork eats and flies off.
This afternoon he grabs a piece of bread and takes it to the mountain ash. He drops it and flies down and disappears into periwinkle to retrieve it. He stays there eating it, apparently still unconcerned about hungry cats. I watch him eating mountain ash berries, too, with no apparent ill effects this time. Perhaps the bread he is eating helps him metabolize the alcohol in the fermenting berries. Or perhaps these berries have not yet begun to ferment.
Wednesday August 15
Ellen feeds him early this morning. He is skittish, as he was with Bob for a few moments last night until he spoke to him reassuringly.
When I feed him at 11:30 I leave the dish out. Before the door bangs shut there are seven from the gang of blue jays and one sparrow milling around and eating from the dish. The eighth blue jay is Gork woefully trying to defend his territory. I think he is dismayed — or betrayed — when I leave the dish out for other birds.
The other birds periodically come down when there is no food and mimic Gork. When I come to the window, though, they usually fly away. One brave blue jay in a tree from a little distance answers me with a squeak. Thinking it is Gork, I call him down. He comes to within ten feet of me and eats from the dish. He leaves as soon as I inadvertently invade his comfort zone, or maybe he is no longer hungry.
Gork’s voice seems to be changing. I hear high-pitched squeaks once in a while when he is squawking.
The squirrel is getting braver. He now comes onto the table when there are no jays, and today he feasts like a king, eating half a slice of bread and ignoring the crumbs while the sparrows watch in hungry anticipation.
Thursday August 16
The squirrel is eating the bread behind my back. I shoo him away but he is remarkably fearless. Only when I get to within a couple of feet of him does he hop off the fence and make for the maple, a jump that takes all his agility as he clings for dear life upside down on a wavering branch.
A plump baby sparrow comes to feed, the same one, I guess, who’s been coming all along. He certainly seems to be eating well.
I put the dish out. Birds come one at a time. If Gork is around he chases them, but not because he is hungry. He makes the barest pretence of eating. He wants the world to understand that this is His Home and that invitations to His Table must come from him.
When he is around, he guards the dish from on high. Curiously, the other birds, young and old, seem to respect that. If he gives intruders a series of bossy squawks, they leave. But there are exceptions.
One of them is Scrappy, a blue jay we so named because he is one of the most aggressive we’ve seen. Once Scrappy gets on that food dish he chases all birds, including juvenile starlings and Gork. When Gork tries to reclaim his dish, Scrappy snarls at him. So Gork, momentarily squawkless, prefers not to tangle, quietly waits in a tree or on the high fence until Scrappy cleans his dish out.
Just as I become sure that he prefers eating alone, I look out and see three birds, all the same size with the same sort of fluff, feeding from the dish. They are all congenial. One of them is Gork. Are these former nestlings? If so, I don’t believe I have seen them before.
Later today he is skittish when he returns. The everyday sounds of the door opening, people talking or lawn mowers grinding seem to upset him.
A blue jay, with all his raucousness, is a silent bird. Eight or ten can be jostling for position and you will not know they are around if they choose to make no sound. But wariness of predators keeps them alert, and sifting of sounds keeps them sane, for they must learn to recognize and ignore the sounds that have no meaning for them.
We try Gork on a peanut, one of a jay’s favorite foods. Bob holds it in his hand while Gork pecks and twists and nibbles awkwardly. He eats some of the shell but summarily discards the rusty-brown outer peel. He works for a full ten minutes getting the nut out of the shell.
This is his third peanut of the day but the first that is successfully tackled. Earlier he flew off with a peanut that he must have dropped en route to a perch. I assume this because he came back in a hurry wanting more.
He flew off with the second peanut and was just beginning to peck at it when another jay dived for it and he dropped it. Funny how he knows that a peanut is a prize worth guarding, if he can, and working at.
Bob’s fist closes around the peanut and Gork goes immediately to the knuckles to try to open the fist. He will not give up.
8. Bolder and Smarter
Friday August 17
He is not as skittish this morning, but he makes a mess of the table, throwing food around for apparently no reason. He comes back silently once or twice but usually gives himself away with a small, babyish squawk as he pecks at the food.
A jay we call Handsome, a mature bird that looks especially sleek, flies in and grabs a too-big chunk of dog food. He drops half and settles down to peck at the rest. Gork watches but keeps a respectful distance. He does not protest. Still, he is not going to let Handsome get totally away with this insult.
Though the table is still covered with most of the food he tossed about earlier, Gork hops over to grab the tidbit that Handsome dropped and begins to eat it. Before starting to eat, he cocks his head toward Handsome as if to say, So there! When Gork drops part of the mouthful, Handsome goes over to retrieve it. I’m bigger and older than you, so I am the boss, he could be saying. Gork does not protest.
Later Gork hangs around and eats a piece of pancake, pecks ever so gently at the ring on my finger and keeps talking, then commanding, until I serve him another piece of pancake. All the birds love pancakes, which may be why he silently flies off to a solitary oak near the house to enjoy it.
I talk to another blue jay who keeps a safe distance from me, up in a tree. He replies in low squeaks. The Guzzler comes and takes his six pieces. Just as he is grabbing a seventh, Whiney who is too scared to come down, utters the shrill jay cry. Guzzler starts up in fright, drops part of his booty, Whiney goes after it, and one at a time they fly to the oak at the side of the house, Whiney first and the Guzzler following. The Guzzler seems to accept Whiney’s false-alarm trick without retaliating with a peck, perhaps because his beak and craw are still full of food.
Saturday, Sunday, August 18-19
Saturday Ellen talks at great length to Gork who is barely visible in the birches. Back and forth they call to each other. Ellen stops her side of the game and goes silent. The bird, now fully recognizable, flies away. We realize then that she has been talking to Whiney, not to Gork.
Gork is crazy for peanuts. Now that he has learned how to whack at the shell, peanuts have become the ultimate snack food. Trouble is, when he gets one, the other birds chase him round and round because they are crazy for peanuts, too.
For some unknown reason he heads for the oaks in the back, where the birds usually congregate, waiting for him. Is he showing off his prize? Is he daring them to take it? If so, they take the dare and grab the prize. Often he is more secretive and flies directly to the oak by the side of the house to sample his treasure in peace.
Sunday evening Bob has peanuts in his pocket. He is holding Gork on his fingers while Gork impatiently stretches to grab the peanut in the pocket. He is so intent on reaching the pocket he loses his balance and almost falls off Bob’s hand until he gets one. He seems to enjoy the games that Bob plays with him.
Earlier in the day he has come begging for food. At first, I offer the usual dog-food fare, but instead of digging in, he squawks and talks and ignores the food dish, until I bring him a peanut. He chirps in delight. The delight quickly turns to complaints about how hard it is to get any meat out of a peanut. So I crack it for him. The complaining stops. He grabs the peanut and flies. An ungrateful con artist!
I am out in the yard soon after Gork has gone. There is some serious blue jay conversation taking place between two birds in the trees – cheeps and bleeps, gurgles and trills. They apparently come to a resolution of sorts because they stop chatting and fly down in silence to the porch together for food. They must be newcomers. I do not recognize them. They do not seem bothered by the games the children are playing in the backyard.
Monday August 20
Gork comes quietly this morning. We do not hear him but the food is all gone. No doubt The Gang helped to empty the dish. When he finally appears, squawking, Susan puts bread out but he continues squawking and will not come down for it until she leaves.
Later, instead of moistening the dog food, I try to save a little time and put it out dry. The birds swoop in with their usual heady enthusiasm. One by one they pop a piece into their beaks. One by one they spit the piece from their beaks and cock their heads to scrutinize this rocky stuff.
They peck at it, push it, toss it. Some give up and leave with empty beaks. Others take pieces to perches in the oaks to figure out how to tackle this new offering. A sparrow sits in the dish checking out the comings and goings.
Gork, however, is downright angry. After he tries a few bites he sets to squawking and picking up food in his beak, scattering it over the table. He leaves with a parting squawk. Later, he comes mooching around real friendly-like. So I forget the bad behavior and tempt him with some peanut butter on my finger, which he relishes.
He will not take it from the cap that is on the table, nor will the other birds, possibly because the cap tends to slide around unexpectedly. Instead they prefer polishing off the dog food, moistened by now, or going hungry, to taking a chance on that gooey stuff in a slippery cap.
To their credit, a couple of brave ones finally try the peanut butter. One takes a small beakful but it seems to stick in his craw so he leaves the scene, swallowing hard. Another takes a couple of tastes from the cap and surprise! realizes this is good stuff. He goes to get more but Jumpy, nervous as ever, squawks, scares himself and every other bird as he lands to feed. The birds scatter.
Gork is done with peanut butter. While I am still inside the house he sees me with the food dish. He screams with delight and flies toward me, talons poised to land on the dish, not quite seeing the glass between us. Just in time, he realizes his miscalculation and swerves sharply to land instead on a nearby deck chair.
Good recovery, I think. But Gork has apparently already forgotten the maneuver, for as I come out of the house he hops on the dish and rides it while I carry it to the table.
He gobbles a few mouthfuls, now on my finger. He must be very hungry, but I am careful about how I move, keeping my actions slow and steady. He grasps my finger ever so gently with barely a touch of his sharp claws. If I move my hand too suddenly, he will fright and will consider me a stranger who cannot be trusted.
A horrid looking blue jay, more weary than wary, comes to feed today. He comes alone and remains alone while he feeds. His body is so plump and his stomach hangs so slack as he perches he looks more like a fat old mourning dove than a slender jay. He is the largest, fattest blue jay I have ever seen. Even more grotesque is his scrawny neck and bare, gray head and glittering eyes.
With crest missing and feathers gone from head and neck, he has the look of a vulture. He does not eat much. He has no interaction with other birds, nor they with him. He slips away unnoticed. I wonder what is wrong and I am saddened by his loneliness. In sickness and in death, birds are mostly alone.
Gork comes by around 3:45 but remains in the hawthorne, reluctant to come down, jittery while I am near. As soon as I am out of sight, he comes down to the porch, not for food, as I assumed, but for a late afternoon sun bath, a way of removing unwanted hitchhikers on feathers.
He crouches and stretches his wings out to catch sunbeams that slide through the trees. This is vulnerable behavior for a bird, but the porch is quiet now and Gork feels safe here.
We betray him by taking a picture, which has since been lost. The clicking of the camera alerts him with a start and he flies away. (He will never sun bathe here again.)
Tuesday August 21
Last night Bob tried to tease Gork with peanuts but Gork turned the tables. Bob had two in his hands. Gork worked on one until Bob hid it in his pocket before he was quite finished. The second peanut was pretty much out of sight, cupped loosely in his hand.
At first Gork went straight for the pocket, but not wishing to stick his head in so deep a cavern and lose his balance, he abruptly changed tactics, snatched the other peanut from Bob, and flew off. Immediately The Gang squawked with delight from their perches and the chase was on.
There were a number of scuffles until a bird captured the peanut and flew with it. In the end, Gork won. Immediately he was back begging for another peanut. We gave it to him.
This morning the birds arrive one by one. Gork gives a squawk when he finds no food, but he flies away when he sees me through the window, moving around in the kitchen. He is becoming more and more wary, and some of his fears might be re-enforced by the actions of other birds.
Now that food is out, Gork and The Gang are coming and going from the table in relatively sedate feeding protocol. An older bird with only stubble on his head but fine-looking otherwise, approaches. Gork flies at him. He then chases him from the table and presses his advantage.
But the bird, larger than Gork, is not to be further humiliated. He stands his ground on the porch rail while Gork flies at him from all directions. All the while the older bird dodges and keeps an open bill, ready to peck if this pipsqueak becomes too threatening. The newcomer is not aggressive but he allows no advantage to Gork.
Finally, the two seem to declare a truce of sorts as they sit on the high gate. The bird flies away and Gork resumes feeding. Does Gork consider this a rout? Was the other bird tolerating Gork because he is a youngster? The scene brings to mind the patience that an older dog has with a rambunctious puppy.
The squirrel arrives and licks the peanut butter jar cap clean. A couple of birds work on tidbits dropped here and there.
I put a dish of unshelled sunflower seeds out. They come in full tilt, ready for dog food. They see the sunflower seed and do a double take, jumping up in alarm, wings flapping. Some remain to circle the dish suspiciously. Others prefer to make a fast getaway.
Wednesday, August 22
It is raining. Gork appears late, as is usual on rainy days. We give him a peanut and after some work on it, he hurries away. The other jays screech in delight as they chase him, round and round the yard. Is it the chase that The Gang relishes, or is it the challenge of winning a peanut? Or both?
Gork still can’t decide where to go to enjoy his peanut in privacy. He seems to want to remain on the high fence once he gets a few bites, but instinct seems to propel him into a tree. Maybe it is just plain uncomfortable sitting on a wide board instead of perching. The hawthorne tree, his usual refuge, does not seem suitable for pecking at peanuts.
While his official name is Gork we refer to him with such affectionate terms as Little Birdie, My Little Birdie, Gork-Gork, Gorksy, and just plain Hey Bird. He has never appeared to know his name, though he always seems to know when we are talking to him and answers us no matter what we call him.
By the same token, the birds recognize each other, too, whether by actions, calls or appearance we do not know. Do they recognize their fuzzy-ball, tailless, sibling nestlings when they are grown up? Do birds of a feather ever mate with their relatives?
The evening is cool after the rain, and wily Gork is still on game with his tricks. It starts innocently enough as Ellen and Steven each bring a peanut out for him. Ellen holds hers while he perches on her finger and pecks, which he does pretty efficiently now.
But he has other ideas that we cannot guess. In a bold, lightning move, he hops to Steven and steals the second peanut. He flies off with a gleeful yip, leaving the Big and Little People laughing while the chase begins. He seems to relish being chased by The Gang as much as The Gang revels in the chase.
Thursday, August 23
Whiney plays the scare trick on the Guzzler again but miscalculates. The Guzzler has only gotten two pieces into his mouth instead of the usual five or six, so after Whiney screeches he doesn’t drop any when he flies up in fright. Whiney has to forage for himself.
Gork comes down to Steven for a peanut, but when he sees Steven’s two friends watching nearby, he flies to refuge in the hawthorne tree. He can only be coaxed down after the boys leave.
Apparently he recognizes and remembers us all now, as he is not frightened when any one of us or all six of us in the family come near him. Since we enjoy peanut-feeding as much as Gork enjoys peanut-pecking, we are all ready to volunteer for the task.
I suspect this is because Gork is ever so gentle when he stands on your finger pecking at a peanut. There is the barest of touch between his claws and your skin, yet the tiny clasp becomes a fragile bond. Within our enforced stillness and the rhythm of his pecking, life takes a pause, and intimacy, yes, and trust, hold us together in a bubble whose skin only shatters when squawks and slamming doors surprise us – or when Gork chooses to play tricks.
Observation: Gork’s powers of discernment must be pretty sharp if he is wary of Steven’s friends but not Steven. Sharper than mine, for after a couple of months of watching the jays I still have trouble telling certain birds apart.
Saturday, August 25
I mix rendered roast beef fat with the dog food. That is a big hit, but they totally ignore the leftover boiled potatoes I put out.
Gork continues to come back for peanuts, but less often now. Bob has a commanding way of coaxing him onto his finger, even when he doesn’t want to come. Putting a peanut in the top of his pocket is a sure way to draw him in. Gork grabs it, then satisfied he’s won the prize, he flies out for a round of chasing.
We rarely see him more than two or three times a day. He no longer scolds or begs for food in the morning like some of the blue jays that visit us. Some days he is very quiet, almost secretive, when he comes back for food. If he sees us, he will sit on the porch rail and talk or complain, and if he notices me at the window and I call while he is feeding, he will answer.
Sunday, August 26
I usually hear soft chattering and whining and squawking in the trees, but it’s been hot the past few days, so the birds are mostly quiet. Birds sit panting and Gork’s voice is hoarse, as though his throat is sore.
Gork only comes at 11:30, the latest ever. We think a cat has gotten him but maybe those August bugs are filling him up.
Tuesday, August 28
The birds are SO wary and scary these days. Their heads dart and jerk, twist and start as they hop toward the food dish. Then, despite, or perhaps in spite of, their jittery watchfulness, they scare themselves witless and vamoose without a mouthful.
They appear not to know when to be scared or what to be scared of. Very few now will feed out of the dish together. Most wait and watch till the previous diner has finished before descending to eat. Is this an instinct that appears at a certain stage in their development?
Wednesday, August 29
Gork seems not to travel with the other blue jays, though he is very much a part of their world. He comes much later in the morning than the others, and we wonder where he spends the night. He comes so stealthily to the porch today that Philip is the only one who sees him taking food. He will not come back when there is much activity in the yard.
In fact, when we put the umbrella up on the picnic table he is so skittish he will not feed from the table, though other birds do not seem to mind the change. Instead, he perches in the hawthorne tree while we feed him from the dish. Does he remember his panic in the house, where there was no sky, or his unhappy hours in the cage?
9. Summer is Fading
Thursday, August 30
We run out of dog food, so Gork hangs around cheeping, grumbling, letting me know in no uncertain terms that he is unhappy. I show him a dish filled with water in case he is thirsty. He flies to it immediately but leaves in a hurry and a huff, reminding me service is not up to par. He does not return for a peanut this evening.
Meanwhile two jays are sitting together gossiping on the stockade fence. Their conversation includes quite a range of gurgling mewing, and squeaking, presumably about blue jay matters. Somehow they come to a decision of sorts, because, in unison they take off and fly to the oak to begin a caterwauling of squawks worthy of a cat-sighting. I cannot spot any cats on the ground.
Saturday, September 1
Gork rejects a peanut in favor of dog food. He has not come for three nights now for a peanut. We don’t see him often, these days. The ties have loosened between us. We no longer listen so attentively for his call and he no longer seems to need our companionship.
He still seems to enjoy contact with us, though. Ellen goes back to the birches to watch him taking a bath and he chirps to her in answer to her crooning queries.
Sunday, September 2
What a din outside. They all seem to be practicing their squeaky pulley cries. Each one outdoes the other. They are growing up.
Some of the birds are looking scruffy around their heads, darkish patches where old feathers must have dropped off. This is the season for the young to molt before winter, and so we assume the scruffiness is the beginning. The fine new plumage that emerges will be their badge of adulthood and signal a readiness for mating.
Tuesday, September 4
Monday we do not see him at all, though Philip says he talked to Gork. We miss him and wonder about how far afield he is flying, if he is with other birds, if he gets lonely, if he is hungry.
I put out a dish of dog food mixed with congealed fat separated from beef gravy, like suet. There is a lot of happy activity at the table until the fat melts in the hot sun and has to be refrigerated and re-hardened before setting out again. We see Gork at least half a dozen times. What a nice reunion!
Bob tries to give Gork a peanut but as soon as the back door opens he flies. The little sparrow is less scary than Gork.
Several times I try to talk to him through the window. He stiffens, then turns to go. Sometimes he stays for a moment, held, perhaps, by shadowy memories of his babyhood. Then he flies to the porch rail, but keeps his back turned to me, ready to take flight. When he can stand my voice no longer, he flies.
Blue jays, and other birds, feel more comfortable if they cannot see you, and if they think you cannot see them, which is why they feel safe behind the leaves that hide them but also give them glimpses of their surroundings.
They are much more apt to scoot in for a piece of bread if your back is turned. Bob and I decide to sit out on the porch in the morning to see what happens when the jays see us.
Many jays come to inspect, some yell, to scare us off or boost their bravado, but they leave with empty beaks. The braver ones slide in for a fast landing, grab bread on the fly and make a dizzying getaway. Gork does not come to inspect nor to eat.
Toward afternoon, Gork is feeding with another bird. They take turns chasing and following each other. They come to the table together and feed together, though the strange bird is far more wary than Gork and leaves at the least sign of unexpected activity. Gork follows the bird to the oak on the side of the house, where they stay for some time. They fly off in opposite directions, but the bird rejoins Gork shortly.
When another bird tries to feed with Gork, he snaps and threatens. The visitor is not impressed. He doesn’t chase easily. Are these juvenile birds seeking companionship as they grow to adulthood? Testing their mettle? Dating before mating?
Gork’s friend is particularly mangy-looking around the head as are many of the birds now. Maybe looks don’t count so much for youngsters in the avian world.
We assume the scruffiness is a sign of molting. Gork has lost a wing feather, but otherwise he looks as handsome as ever. Other young birds do not seem to be molting around the head, either. Old Baldy is slowly growing a few new feathers.
Leaner has come around lately. He has not been one of the regulars. He still favors his foot but it seems a lot better.
Wednesday September 5
A high pitched, almost inaudible whistle of insects sings of the end of summer. A monarch makes its lazy way from shrub to shrub, an occasional leaf drops.
I put bread out, but there is not much interest. They come by ones and twos and leave quickly. The morning’s offering does not appeal to them. One jay lets me know his displeasure, squawking loudly when he finds dry bread instead of soft dog food.
Gork comes alone – and silent! He appears to be keeping to himself today, separate even from members of The Gang he has often fed with.
The children are back at school for their first day. I wonder if they miss their daily contact with Gork, or if they have more exciting things to think about.
Except for bug-songs, the yard should be quiet. But though most of the jays may quietly spurn bread, they more than make up for the missing sounds of summer. They are whistling, chirping, squawking, hee-hawing, whining, yodeling, rasping, screaming back and forth all morning.
I hear an unmistakable, loud cry from the telephone wire around ten. It is Gork, announcing his presence. He flies down, toys with some bread while I talk to him, then takes a piece to the fence to work on it while he waits patiently for me to bring out some dog food.
He flies up to get a drink from the gutter, but when I open the door he heads for the oak, far enough away to see me and feel safe. I hold the dish and talk to him. He chats, restless, not able to make up his mind, finally gathering courage and flying to his refuge in the hawthorne.
From here he talks to me in his pleading baby voice. He is such an artful beggar. I hold the dish and he flies back and forth but dares not land on it, preferring the neutrality of the porch rail.
As I go to put the dish on the rail he turns away from me but does not fly. That food is so enticing. I look away, he grabs a bite and flies to the monkey bars. As I turn to go, a jay who has been quietly watching from among the leaves of the maple, no doubt hoping for a chance at the food dish, gets jittery and flies.
Gork’s hesitance over feeding today is far different from his attitude two weeks ago, when he would stand on the shed roof and wait till I came to the door with food. At that time he would fly against the door and scream, so great was his anticipation, so little his fear.
Late in the afternoon the birds are screaming in distress. I walk into the backyard and find the cat, half hidden by tall weeds. I also find his quarry, a lifeless baby jay, probably fallen from the nest with sad consequences. So I am doubly glad to see that Gork does not fly down to pick up bread he drops. Is it instinct that saves him? Or, does he feel that just another piece of bread is not worth the effort?
Thursday, September 6
One by one they seem to take turns coming to scream for food. Gork is one of the noisy ones. Later, though, when he returns with The Gang and there are only crumbs, he stays silent. They are wise and noisy, these birds, growing up and continuing to experiment with their calls. One bird gives squeaky-pulley calls, working his body up and down in sync with the wind-up of the call. Another cries hee-haw.
I have never clearly heard any of Gork’s cries, except for the usual squawking for food. Since he is slightly smaller and his necklace is pale, and he has not been raised by mama and papa blue jays I wonder if he is at a disadvantage. He certainly has doting foster parents!
A female cardinal comes for food. We hear her sharp chip several times. Bob puts sunflower seeds on the table to entice her, but she does not return. Too much noise and confusion from the blue jays, I guess.
Friday, September 7
He comes around noon for dog food but leaves as soon as I make a noise. Yesterday he came and rested on the high fence. Feeling a little nostalgia for the good old days? Today he seems a stranger. There is constant gossip and chatter and bobbing in the mountain ash. Is it from The Three Musketeers? But he is not among them.
I open the door to let a stranded horsefly out, and as he does not take immediate advantage of this escape route, I keep the door open while I work around the kitchen. A moment after he leaves and I close the door, six or seven blue jays, expecting food, fly down to check the dish. Still empty. They leave. It seems they are watching me as closely as I watch them.
Saturday, September 8
He is beginning to show signs of molting; the last bird around here to do so, but he does not yet look as shabby as the rest, perhaps because he is our bird and he always looks wonderful in our eyes. Once his molt is complete, we wonder if we will be able to distinguish him from the rest. Will he retain his light markings?
Soon we hear from the mountain ash a sweet warbling hee-haw sound from him. Ellen says she has heard him make grunting sounds, too. He yells at us for dog food from safe in the oak, but since we have dinner guests, he will have to settle for peanuts tossed out onto the lawn.
Monday, September 10
He is anxious for dog food. He yells. I see him in the mountain ash and come out with a dish. He stays in the mountain ash talking to me with little baby peeps explaining how much he wants the dog food but how he can’t possibly come down while I am holding it. I keep coaxing.
I put the dish down on the rail. He flies to it with a yell and tries to land directly on it. He upsets the dish and in a fright he flies away with a couple of sharp yells. We salvage the food and set the dish on the table. We sit down to wait. He talks and begs from the phone wire but he will not come down.
He still recognizes us, but some deep and abiding wild instinct tells him he must not come to us. He is flapping his wings. I coax and coax until he finally comes down to the porch. We dare not talk to him while he is so close.
Other jays come down to feed also. One comes, watches us for a long time. He stands his ground but cannot bring himself to feed. That mille-second when a bird must put his head down to peck a bite makes him so vulnerable! Most of the action on the porch table during feeding has its roots in that innate fear of becoming a meal for a predator.
Tuesday, September 11
Gork is doing a crazy loop-de-loop, his flight fluttery and erratic. Has he lost his senses? I see a white moth fluttering and dodging his bill. As he flies out of sight I hear two of his typical food! food! yells, but I will never know if he actually catches the moth.
I smear bread with peanut butter and put it in the dish with dog food. The Gang roots around for the dog food, carefully avoiding the bread, until the dog food is gone and they have no other alternative.
I find I can “talk” to the jays in the trees nearby if I consistently use one call, in this case, Come on, uttered sweetly and coaxingly, always with the same inflections. They will answer me, and some of them will come to feed. If I vary my voice or my language, they become frightened and fly. They look directly at where my sounds are coming from and talk, though I often stay hidden. Which gives them more confidence that answering will not result in bad things.
Squeaky pulleys and small-voiced wind-ups for squeaky pulleys, warbly hee-haws, tick ticks, mouse-like chattering, jay calls and little growls fill the trees.
10. Becoming Adults
Wednesday September 12
A thrush appears for the first time at the feeding dish. The blue jays watch hungrily while the thrush nibbles, but mostly guards the dish. None of them dare come down, except Gork who still considers this his domain. The thrush is not cowed and pecks at Gork, forcing him to keep his distance. Gork does not respond, simply sits and waits.
Seeing his advantage, the thrush begins to chase Gork, slowly hopping around the table. They coame full circle round the table till Gork stops and stands in front of the feeding dish. He is feeling bold on his territory, bold enough to take a nibble, and another, until the thrush starts chasing him again and Gork gives way.
The birds seem tamer lately. One will go through his repertoire of sounds perched right on the fence. Another yells at me from the hawthorne tree, bossy, then answers back when I talk to him. They complain because I have only put out stale frankfurter rolls. They stay a while to investigate the rolls, fussing, but when I ignore them, they finally polish them off.
Once in a while, when Gork comes to feed, we hear a small, babyish peep coming from him. Reminiscent of his younger days? Mostly he is quiet and stealthy and less tame these days than some of the other birds who will answer my calls. The feathers of his crest seem to be growing, though it might only be breezes sweeping the feathers up, playing wind-games with them. He is molting but he still looks handsome to us.
He will not stay for a peanut tonight, though the memory of Bob’s voice obviously stirs a chord in him. He hesitates a long while, listening, before he decides to fly away.
Thursday, September 13
Old Baldy still has a cadaverish look about his face and neck, but some fluff seems to be growing in.
One bird keeps up the jay cry for quite some time this morning, but there is sadness in the cry, as though he is mourning the loss of a friend. Is it because the cat has gotten brazen again, lurking under the shrubs, perhaps succeeding in his quests? Jays seem to be well able to convey their moods, though we humans probably misinterpret them.
We hear the sharp chip of the cardinal, presumably the female, but do not see her.
Gork is edgy. Ellen gets to within a couple of feet of Gork before he flies away. Bob talks to him but as soon as he comes out with peanuts he flies. Bob opens his hand so Gork can see the peanuts and from his hiding place in the tree he screams with delight. But he will not come down.
A blue jay comes for the peanuts Bob leaves in the dish. Each time he approaches the dish and peeks into it he scares himself. He jumps or flies up and back to safety in a tree some distance away and contemplates the situation eight or nine times, getting a fresh scare each time he approaches the peanuts. He never takes a peanut.
Friday, September 14
Gork looks really ugly today, face and neck dark and spikey. I wonder if he ever feels a chill around his neck now that the nights are cooler.
Broken Wing has been coming to the porch to feed. This is what we call the jay with the droopy wing who has been visiting lately. He stays to rest near the food, head sunk down into body, eyes partially closed and body resting on legs.
He is comfortable on the table until Bob speaks to him, which puts him on high alert. He decides he’d be safer if he left but not before taking a piece of food with him. Later, he comes and rests comfortably on the high fence for a long while, eyes quiet, head and body eventually slumped in repose.
Gork reminds me of the teenager who would rather not be associated with his parents. He does not seem to fly with The Gang, either, and we see less of him than the other birds. He is often the last to feed when I put the dish out.
When the food dish is just about empty, there is a great rush for the last few mouthfuls, then the table is quiet except for an occasional hungry bird pecking at crumbs.
How much of Gork’s independence comes from growing up? And how much comes from his memories of spending time in a cage that kept him from reaching for the sky? Birds are born to soar with no ceiling but the sky. No doubt there is that tug between limited trust and a desire for food.
Leaner is back today, game and lively.
Saturday, September 15
Broken Wing is back. He is feeding and resting comfortably on the porch. He can make short flights so we are hopeful he will heal. He is an especially handsome bird, and one of the tamer, less fearful birds who has visited the table, often with Gork.
Sunday, September 16
We watch Broken Wing feeding on bread crumbs on the ground and we are saddened to see he cannot fly at all. Half-heartedly we try to catch him but he is not that tame and he disappears into the bushes. A neighbor sees him and tries to help. He runs and is gone from us.
Some goldfinches rollercoaster in, land on the porch table, leave. They hurry so, we can’t catch a close look. The avian grapevine must be broadcasting that there is a smorgasbord here but does not specify the menu. They are not expecting dog food and do not stick around to try any.
Earlier, Bob takes the empty food dish into the house to refill it. While he mixes the dog food with water, eight or nine jays sit in the trees, waiting, hoping, expecting a feast. They must watch us all day from their hiding places.
Gork is looking rather handsome now, though his molting is not complete. His plumage is lighter gray-blue than the usual jay plumage, his bib is almost entirely missing, his facial features are pale. He is still smaller than other birds, and while he considers the table his special feeding grounds, he gives the bigger birds all due respect.
Today he sits within inches of a jay dozing in the birches. Apparently, for these two, no grace space is needed. Perhaps the young ones simply want company, or maybe this is a first date, or maybe courtship has been going on for weeks, unobserved by us.
Jumpy, fattened on dog food, is quite handsome now, not so gangly, but still terribly nervous. Old Baldy is growing feathers, though progress is unbelievably slow, and he still looks strange. One especially handsome, confident bird talks to me for over a minute.
Conversation is limited to his squawk and my hello. A number of birds gather to watch us, then disappear. One loud, fresh bird squawks his toughness from the hawthorne, the fence, the rail, the table, but never gets up nerve enough to feed.
The Gang seems to like the birch trees for dozing, perhaps because their slender limbs sway in breezes, like comfortable old rocking chairs, and their small fluttering leaves allow the passage of dappled sunlight. They are nicely camouflaged, yet they still have a view.
Monday, September 17
Sunday evening while it was still light I put out a lot of food, but no birds come round. This morning, early, I am flabbergasted when I find the dish spanking clean. Birds are not lick-the-plate-clean eaters; in fact just the opposite.
I am baffled until I see a new guest: a huge tabby looking very content. I chase him. He leaves reluctantly, only after he grabs the single bite he had missed.
Word must have spread through the cat world that you can have a bird banquet and a dog food feast here, for I see another cat today. Birds see him, too, and scream and follow him as he runs away.
Gork is fluffy in the breezes – he rarely looks sleek these days. Does he fluff himself up to make himself look larger and more imposing than he really is?
The birds return after I put new food out, but they are all so jumpy they scare each other when they move about. Not much feeding gets done for the energy expended.
I look for Broken Wing among the clamoring birds on the porch. When he does not come I surmise that the screaming of the blue jays late the previous afternoon signaled his end. We do not see him again. We miss him.
Tuesday, September 18
The birds seem scrappy lately. They are growing up. They are exploring their rights — territory and space, feeding, pecking orders — to create what seems like a complex social structure that may isolate them as individuals but that works to keep the species vigorous.
Old Baldy sails in for food but before he can grab a bite, another bird comes along. They fly at each other, both momentarily sit on the fence but the intruder will not be satisfied with a mere few feet of grace space. He moves in for an attack. Baldy stands his ground, opens his beak to show his mettle, then retreats. The intruder is so nervous he never does eat.
We are leaving for several days. I do not spot Gork before we go, but Ellen thinks she has seen him on the telephone wire, all fluffy and fuzzy, the way he used to look when he relaxed on the porch.
Monday, October 1
It’s been a while since I’ve been involved with the blue jays in our back yard. They are strangers to me, though I recognize a few of the regulars. Old Baldy is one. He now has a tuft or two of crest and is spiking some respectable crown feathers. I won’t be able to pick him out much longer. The Three Musketeers, because they are still traveling together and even look alike, are easy to spot.
A jay who used to talk to me is now molting and is quite bald. Another used to stay a moment when I spoke but my voice makes him jittery now. These two seem to be rivals. There is a third bird who joins them, though rarely do I see all three near each other. Then there is Dropsy, who still crams food into his beak and drops it and tries to gather the fallen pieces.
I look for Gork. It has been more than two weeks since I identified him positively, and I wonder about him. I think about how he used to squawk and snooze on our fence.
The blue jays have quieted down but I hear other birds now, the chip of the cardinal every evening. We are finally seeing the male. The female has been a regular, though too shy to come down to the table. The robin is warbling some, and of course the sparrows are always around.
Another bird with gray speckled back, gray wings with white wingbars and creamy white breast and long tail that flicks perches in the hawthorne tree but I’ve never seen him come down for food. He is quiet and hangs back.
A bird screams at me from the oak. It may be Gork but I never get a close look. I talk to him for a moment. When I turn away he flees. I put out some more food. A crowd gathers almost instantly but I cannot identify any positively. There is only one familiar, the jay who takes a beakful of food, then looks to the house to see who is watching before he takes off into the trees.
I see a ratty looking bird in the trees, maybe still molting. This bird is smaller than other birds and a little thinner. Another blue jay, the one who thinks he owns the place, snaps at him when he comes to feed, but he holds his ground.
I find I recognize the jays now more by behavior than by looks.
Sunday, October 7
The birds seem more secretive less willing to come down when I am watching, possibly because I am no longer following any scheduled observations and feedings.
Last Wednesday I heard a group of them gabbing as they sat on the telephone wire. I assumed they were flocking to migrate but the old familiars are still returning for food. It’s hard to predict blue jay migration. Some do, some don’t. Some migrate one year but not the next.
I awaken at 7:30 to loud screeching and intermittent chip-chips and brr-brrs. Thinking a cat is responsible for all the racket, I walk outside to check. I find no cat but a mighty convocation of two titmice, four mockingbirds flicking their tails, one robin and a dozen blue jays calling with gusto.
They fly from tree to tree and are not especially frightened when I walk beneath the branches they perch on. Who knows, they may welcome my patrolling if a cat, or maybe a hawk is around. They continue screeching and seem to be answered by birds at some distance. The air is alive with their nervous energy. Only one blue jay flies away to the oaks near the monkey bars as I approach the branch he is perching on. I wonder whether it is Gork.
Thursday, October 25
I am still putting food out, though I have little time to watch comings and goings. Happily, a few times a week we see Gork. It is sometimes difficult to make positive identification because he is grown now. Occasionally he holds his leg up, favors it, or seems a little wobbly, and then we are sure.
Spotting him among the parade of hungry jays that visit the dish has become rather like spotting a former high school chum in a department store. First you’re sure, then you’re not so sure. You think you remember, but then again there have been changes with time.
If we can study a bird at leisure, we can spot traits and quirks that help us identify him. But the birds swoop in and out too fast for me to take them all in. Gork’s posturing, his relative size, his pale coloring, and our memories of his habits give us clues.
And so, in the last days of an unusually fair October, as the maple is turning bright yellow to cast gold over gray mornings, the ties are weakening. Each of us has our memories of Gork and we laugh over the pictures we took and wish we had taken better ones, and more.
The air is quiet now. The jays are not making such a racket any more. In fact the air is so still this morning I think this group of jays has finally migrated, till late in the morning I see the familiar blue flitting around the dish. They must forage elsewhere earlier, which means they have learned my personal morning schedule.
Even the sparrows seem subdued. Only the mockingbirds, unusually tame, chip and chip every morning as they root around for pyracantha and holly berries. Rarely does the mockingbird sing now, and if he does his song is short and not as grand as in spring. The other day a catbird visited us briefly. His strange mewing, reminiscent of the meows of summer, called us to the door. We smiled in relief when we saw the mewing had come from a bird.
Wednesday November 5
It’s a rainy, windy gray day. It’s not particularly cold, but the birds seem bedraggled and forlorn. Gork flies in to check the dish, which reminds me I haven’t yet fed them. I go outside, he flies to a branch that is so high in the oak I can barely spot him. I talk to him, call to him, and to my surprise, after two weeks of silence, he lands on the fence and answers me, a plaintive little squawk that seems to say, I am wet and miserable.
Wednesday November 12
The air has a chill, the leaves that are left on the trees, except for the maples, are crusty and shriveled. Acorns, a blue-jay staple, are plentiful, but insects are scarce, except for scale insects that can be picked off plants. Each day the berry crop gets leaner.
The birds hang around, but always at a safe distance, looking for a handout. The air might be still when I go out to get the empty dish, but after the door bangs, a chorus of expectant twittering rises. Once the dish is put out, the food is gone within five minutes.
One jay is so frantic he refuses to eat until all birds are gone from the porch. He will fight with each bird, even though no bird around seems to have any intention of usurping his feeding rights.
Dropsy outdoes the Guzzler in frantically stuffing his beak. He leaves and returns for more, though his beak is still so crammed with food he drops pieces. Does the sight of birds converging on the dish and emptying it trigger the instinct to cram and cache?
Blue jays are known for collecting acorns, as many as five at a time to cache in crevices. Some say they are the Johnny Appleseeds of our oak forests.
I must have teased the expectant birds today. I bring the food out, wait while it softens until Gork twitters. I answer. Impatiently he flies in, facing me momentarily, then turns his back on me before he will tell me a story.
When he can no longer bear my purring noises and my closeness, he flies to the mountain ash. Three times he does this before I go into the house. As independent as he is, he is still torn. He wants the closeness, he likes the monopoly on food that my presence gives him, but there are the residual fears of the cage and the instinct to stay wild. I leave and The Gang converges on the dish.
The winter closes in and I lose touch.
11. A New Beginning
Wednesday, February 6, 1974
The winter has been kind except for some bitterly cold stretches. This week is fair. It is one that warms the blood and gladdens the spirit. The few blue jays that are around, silent through the winter, begin to call. There is music in the air. I hear birds warbling, calling, murmuring. Sunlight that stretches daylight is like a spring tonic.
Our hawthorne looks like a three-dimensional Audubon print. It is in dense shade for most of the day, north of the house, yet it has become a hangout between meals for sparrows, juncos and jays, for avian passersby, too.
It has been a long time since I’ve seen Gork. I used to worry about a cat getting him, but I have come to believe that he is too wise and cautious. Still, there are the missing and damaged nails on his claw and the weakened wing from his fall out of the nest. These could be disadvantages to survival. Perhaps he has migrated south with other birds.
A blue jay with especially dark markings converges on the hawthorne and calls and cries, arching his back, pointing his tail feathers and lifting his crest till it peaks. He looks quite pert but I do not recognize him as one of the jays who visited us during those heady days last summer when bumptious young jays congregated on our porch for feeding and practicing their calls and pumping up their bravado.
Two months ago in December there were a lot of jays here. When there are a lot of jays there is always some drama. Two of the regulars, probably young birds, remind me of Gork, but one of them looks particularly round and plump, almost babyish, not long and streamlined as a jay should be at this time of year. When I look more closely I see that this jay is missing his tail.
His wings are strong so he has no trouble flying, but he loses his balance easily on the bird feeder and sometimes on a branch. He is low man in the pecking order. He is the last to get food, and if he is feeding he gets pushed away by newcomers until they have gulped their fill.
I find myself watching for him each day. If I miss him, I assume the worst, so I am doubly delighted whenever I see him feeding. Within two weeks I see a stick where there had been no tail. Day by day I watch the bird and sure enough the stick seems to be getting longer and fuller. Soon I must compare blue jay tails before I can identify him. And soon I can distinguish him from the other jays no longer. A happy ending.
In the weeks that have passed without my seeing Gork I begin to wonder if I will recognize him when I see him again, if his image has blurred in my memory, or if he has changed imperceptibly so I can never again be sure of a sighting.
Today, though, I recognize him. He is close enough that I can see the missing nail on his claw as I part the kitchen curtains. That detail makes this a positive sighting, though I really don’t need one. I recognize him as soon as I see him.
He is on the low end of the pecking order, and wary. He takes maybe two or three bites at most and is relegated to feeding with sparrows. But he is still acting like he is king of the feeder.
Monday, May 1
The past few days have been warm. The apple trees are popping into full bloom, so too the weeping cherry. Periwinkle and violets blaze away. The trees are impatient to leaf out. Today is cool and crisp and the trees dance to the wind.
I am out gardening, and out of the corner of my eyes I notice a blue jay watching me from a nearby tree. It has been weeks since I’ve spotted Gork and I assume he has gone elsewhere.
But this one is making his presence known to me. He seems to be calling me with a cry that cannot be ignored. So I answer with the only greeting I know, Hello, in the same tone I have always used when addressing the birds.
My memory flicks momentarily back to those early days when Gork was just a baby mewing and feeding on our fingers
The bird seems to answer, then turns its back as if ready to fly. We bounce a few greetings back and forth until the bird flies away. I shrug and peek hurriedly around to see if someone has been watching and listening to the strange lady who talks to birds.
A few moments later, two birds are barely visible in the mountain ash. One of them calls to make sure I know he is nearby. I answer again. The silent bird takes off with a flurry. The other stays to answer me. Again, we exchange several greetings. Then the bird changes from his formal squawk to the intimate, low-voiced squeaks I remember from when Gork was young and wanted our companionship. I answer his low, squeaky warbles. He replies.
I am still kneeling from the garden work I was doing. I am some distance from the mountain ash, so I take a chance on slowly standing up and walking quietly toward it. The movement is more than the bird can bear. He flies and I lose my chance for contact, and maybe even a joyful reunion.
Can this bird be Gork? After a winter of silence? My head swivels and my eyes search the trees but I see no birds. Well, I will try to tempt him with sunflower seeds and cracked corn on the feeder.
My bait works. Minutes later the duo are at the feeder and I am at the kitchen window watching. Both are feeding companionably together, which is rare for blue jays who usually follow the social protocol of taking turns at feeders.
For the moment they are alone in the backyard. One or the other, more often the wary one, will fly off, and allow the other to feed solo. I smile, thinking back to the jostling and squawking last summer at the feeder, when youngsters were seeking a place among their peers and finding their way in a big scary world. This is the sweetest display of birds feeding that I have ever seen.
The more wary bird has dark markings, dark bands on his face and a dark necklace. His head is deep purple-blue. He hangs back, comes and goes. It is the other bird I want to view more closely, the bird who occasionally loses his balance. It’s only a slight stumble, barely noticeable, but I have seen it many times.
I examine the pale markings, similar to Gork’s markings this summer. Without binoculars I cannot get a good look at the claws to confirm a missing nail. I do not dare move to reach for them.
Do I need binoculars? Surely this is Gork. We had not seen him since before his molt was complete. Now he is sleek in new gray-blue feathers, breast so pure white.
What other bird would stay so long or feel so comfortable at the feeder while I stand, visible, at the window, less than eight feet away? There is another tentative loss of balance. Yes, this must be Gork.
He retreats to the hawthorne, his old refuge. Twice the darker bird returns to feed the lighter bird. So, these birds must be a pair, and these offerings of food are gestures of courtship from male to female.
So! That feisty little bird we rescued nine months ago, who gazed on us curious and unafraid, and who captured our hearts for a summer, is not a male, as we had assumed, but a female.
The two birds feed leisurely and then seem to go separate ways. By now I am sure the lighter bird is Gork, and that she has found a mate. She takes a bath in her usual bathtub, the drain gutter, one of three that day, and settles herself in the birch trees to preen.
In a moment he lands next to her, almost touching her as they sit companionably on a branch. When he moves, it is to hover over her from nearby branches. For a long time she sits preening while he comes and goes, occasionally bringing her gifts of food.
Once in a while she flies off, leaving him alone in the birches. Yet he seems to listen for her calls. Once, when he is at the feeder, a jay calls. He stops feeding and listens long. Satisfied that the call is not coming from his mate, he resumes feeding.
She comes up to the feeder, apparently surprising him. There is a clash of bills, until each bird recognizes the other, and they perch, feeding face to face. They seem to be the only birds in the world. For a little while, anyway.
Slowly other jays drift in and feed. Gork and her mate leave. Some jays carry off the short strings I put out for nesting material. More jays come, hungry but wary. The feeder becomes a lively platform of jays coming and going in late afternoon. Two males spar over a female who decides to leave with the males following in hot pursuit.
12.The Ties Have Frayed
We do not see Gork again. We do not seek her out, nor does she watch for us and call when we are out in the yard. She will caress us with her sweet warblings, her murmured tales, no more.
She is beginning a new life as a mother in a new territory defended by her mate. She will be guided by instincts and experience as she raises her broods, though wispy memories of her summer with us will remain. We have observed enough blue jay behavior to believe that blue jays have long memories.
Since they have molted, we no longer recognize members of The Gang who whistled and squawked and dove into the food we put out on our porch, each one with inimitable style. Those youngsters are grown by now, seeking mates and establishing territories and sharing the duties of parenthood.
Did any members of The Gang pair up? Was some early courtship taking place on our backyard table, or in the hawthorne tree last summer? Did Whiney ever settle down enough to attract a mate? Did Dropsy ever learn to manage his food? Is Old Baldy still alive? Do the Three Musketeers keep in touch with each other?
These are questions we will never know the answers to. Nor do we seek them. Our ties with the blue jay world were ephemeral, based on a ball of fluff and feathers and innocent eyes that fell into our lives and gave us much joy as she grew into a feisty fledgling who knew how to pluck our heartstrings at will and then became a handsome, independent adult.
For one summer we became a part of the community of jays in our neighborhood. Opportunistic souls they were, establishing the briefest ties with Big People and Little People, giving us a small measure of their trust because we fed them and watched out for them, and, maybe, we left them with memories of their growing up on our porch.
Now they are gone. The ties are frayed and will not be mended. And that is as it should be. But we, too, have our memories, and our pictures.
Text and photographs Copyright @ A Herons Garden 2022