Written by Jean Snow of California
Mothering a baby blue jay was not my idea when I drove out on errands that morning. I’d never really liked those pesky Eastern Blue Jays who sat at my feeder stuffing themselves, keeping away the more timid birds.
“Mommy, stop!” cried my daughter. “There’s a baby blue jay!”
I braked and pulled over to leap out and scoop up a scrawny bird just as he was about to walk into the highway traffic. Turning to put him in the bushes, I saw the body of a full-grown blue jay. His mother? How could this fledgling survive? His legs were dry twigs and his cold claws tightened about my finger. Eyes closed, his head sagged. Poor mite!
I cupped my other hand over him. He settled into the warmth, then opened a jet bead eye and looked at me.
“I’ll try,” I sighed.
He Needed a Nest
At home, I put him into a four-quart strawberry basket with some rags at the bottom, thinking he might snuggle down. But no, he hopped to the rim, closed his eyes and his head sagged. I closed the door tight to keep out our cat, and left for the library. One book said no night feedings for baby birds. Thank you, Mother Nature!
I’d tap on his dish with a spoon, ting, ting, as I approached. Hearing that, he fluttered his wings as baby birds do when the parent approaches. Though an eyedropper didn’t feel like mother’s beak, nor did pureed baby meat taste like – well, whatever — he soon learned to open his beak wide for the dropper. Then when he’d had enough, snap went his beak and he’d turn his head away.
His feathers growing fast, in a week, Scree looked grown-up. He loved sitting on the branch I’d propped in a kitchen window. From there he watched the birds outdoors, murmuring delicate sounds, perhaps a Jay version of a toddler’s babbling? When Scree began to peck at the medicine dropper, I offered bits of raw chopped beef with tweezers, and scattered bits of sunflower seeds on a breadboard. At first he didn’t notice food at claw level until I tapped it with the tweezers. Then, inspecting it with one eye, then the other, he’d peck – and miss!
As human babies must practice hand-eye coordination, baby birds, I realized, must practice “beak-eye” coordination. Now he pecked at everything. Tiny green cabbage worms appeared in my vegetable garden, so I put one on the breadboard. It wriggled. Scree jumped back, then inspected, grabbed and swallowed it. Immediately he fluttered his wings for more. I placed him on a potted hibiscus in my dining room. There, through the sliding glass doors, he could see and hear blue jays at my feeder outside. Next, I poured water into a flowerpot saucer. Scree stood on the rim to drink. I set him into the water, splashing it gently, and finally trickling water onto his back. That clicked. He put his beak into the water and shook it. Next was his entire head, as he crouched and fluttered his wings. He splashed until he was drenched, then preened himself and fell asleep in his hisibcus “tree.”
My kitchen was long and narrow, with windows at each end, where I braced sticks on which he could perch and watch the birds outdoors. Soon he began to flap his wings vigorously, almost falling off his branch. Then he aimed his first real flight at the branch in the back window. He flew about three feet, and was so excited he uttered his first loud squawk, and stopped flapping. Luckily he was above the center counter where he crash landed, looking over his shoulder as if wondering who had made that big squawk.
I felt Scree was still too young to survive alone, but he need practice searching for insects and practice flying in my large vegetable garden when I was weeding it. A week after daily outings, Elinor took Scree into the garden to practice, but soon she ran back.
“Mommy, quick! Scree flew up into the dogwood. I can’t reach him!”
By the time I arrived, Scree was so high in an oak tree, no ladder rescue was possible. He flew higher yet, tree to tree, finally disappearing into our back woods. Blue jays lived there, banding in loose flocks, but would they accept a stranger? Could he survive on his own?
Two weeks later I sat on my patio, savoring a cup of tea. Suddenly a handsome blue jay swooped in, landing on a branch high in an oak. He craned his neck peering at me. Could it be? I tapped my cup with the spoon, ting, ting, ting. He hesitated, then fluttered his wings as if begging for food. It had to be Scree! Flying closer, he perched and looked at me. Then, as if he had decided, he flew into the back woods where the jays were calling one another. (More great photos of Scree here)
Now when I hear that strident jay call, I smile, remembering the intelligent fledgling who taught me about his species. Today there are many bird rescue shelters with volunteers and trained experts for this kind of emergency. Laws have become strict, and numerous, so it’s best to take a rescued young bird to a shelter.