Saving Baby Jay

by J.D. Roth

Note: Though this entry may at first appear to be filled with cat on bird violence, it has a happy ending. I think.

I was sound asleep in the tub tonight when Kris came barging into the house. “Nemo just caught a juvenile jay!” she shouted, distressed. I woke with a start. Outside there was a raucous squawking riot. I rose from the tub and dripped to the front door, naked.

Nemo was slinking around the back of the house, treasure in mouth. Simon was making his way to the azalea hedge where the capture had occurred. “What do I do?” Kris asked.

“Scare Simon,” I said. I ran to the bathroom for my pants. When I came outside, Kris was pouring her water bottle over the azaleas. “No,” I said. “Hit the hedge with a stick.” She did so, and Simon bounded out. So, too, did another juvenile jay. Simon saw it, but Kris was quicker: she scooped it into her hands.

“What do I do now?” she asked.

“Hold on,” I said. I grabbed Simon and shut him in the house. Mama and Papa Jay were flying from limb-to-limb, squawking at us.

“I’m going to make a nest for the baby,” Kris said. She bunched up some ivy in the crook of some pine branches, then placed the fledgling inside. While she worked, I walked around the house to find Nemo.

He was back by the dogwoods, seated in loaf position, watching his baby jay as it hopped along the ground. Nemo wasn’t even trying to play with it. I thought for sure the thing had been mortally wounded, but when I picked it up, I was shocked to find that it was wholly uninjured. How was that even possible? As I carried it back to the front yard, it squawked — louder than any adult jay I’ve ever heard — and struggled to be free. Its parents squawked in reply.

“Is it alive?” Kris asked after she had locked Nemo in the house. She was as shocked as I was. “What do we do now?” she said.

“Put it in the tree with its brother?” I suggested. But when I crept behind the azaleas — naked except for my pants — the other fledgling was gone. “Ouch,” I said, pricked by holly leaves and pine needles. Kris took a turn looking in the pine and on the ground nearby, but there was no sign of the bird. Can a parent jay carry its children? we wondered.

I let the feisty jay free on the grass where it immediately hopped for cover underneath a lawn chair. “We should feed it,” Kris said. While she looked for worms, I grabbed my camera. I loved the little bird’s personality, his indomitable spirit to have survived Nemo.

“Worms are more difficult to find when you need them,” Kris said, bringing a little one for the baby jay. The bird pecked at it, but did not eat it.

We spent half an hour trying to get the parents and the baby to reunite. Mama and Papa Jay were aware that their baby was with us; they flew from hedge to bush to tree, keeping low to the ground, but they would not come into the open to get their child. And we didn’t want to let the fledgling hop into the bushes (which was what it wanted to do).

The mosquitoes feasted upon our flesh: I was still wearing only a pair of pants.

As dusk fell, we brought the bird inside and put it in a cat carrier. (Oh! The irony!) We gave it a dish of water and a dish of millet. We made a bed of straw. While Kris fussed over our young charge, I googled for information. I found a page about how to care for baby birds — unfortunately, its advice was to let the fledglings hop into the bushes where its parents can care for them, something we had prevented. By this time it was dark out, and we were worried that the parents had given up on their child when we brought it inside.

“I’ll get a box,” I said. I found a shoebox, and we moved the bird and its water and its millet inside. I took the shoebox and placed it behind the azalea hedge, beneath the pine tree.

Will our little jay survive? I don’t know. I hope so. Our feline children will not be allowed outside for several days, that’s for sure. The first place they’ll go when we let them out is the azalea hedge, hunting for birds. I’m hopeful that by the weekend the juvenile jays will be able to fly, and thus elude our hunters.

Cat and Bill disapprove of the fact that we allow the cats outside, partly because they do hunt, killing birds from time-to-time. I respect their position, and understand their concerns, but mostly I believe that the cat-bird dynamic is hardcoded into nature and ought to be allowed to play out. However, I recognize that as a moral human animal, it is my responsibility to do what I can to protect all intelligent life when possible. Nemo killing a goldfinch once or twice a year is one thing; Nemo picking off baby jays who have left the nest is another.

What line has been crossed here? I can’t articulate it, but I do know that so long as it’s within my power to save these baby jays, it’s my responsibility to do so. I feel no remorse at the death of a goldfinch, but the death of a jay seems reprehensible. Whine as they might, the cats are restricted indoors for several more days.

Resources about caring for baby birds:

Be well, little bird!

Updated: 16 May 2006

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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