The other day we were walking home from the library when we came across the most adorable little softball-sized ball of feathers you’ve ever seen. Baby blue-jays, when newly fledged and making their first explorations outside the nest, don’t have their tail feathers yet, you see. This lack of a tail means that their characteristic bird-like body shape is rather round.
Do you have any idea how very cute a little round ball of feathers chirping madly away and mistaking you for its mother can be when you are eight years old?
The cute factor is very high.
Unfortunately for this particular bundle of cuteness, he had wandered rather far from the nest and was in a fair amount of distress on this particular very hot day. The sun was high with barely a cloud to be seen and the UV index was at 10, and this poor little guy was stuck in a heat trap of scrubby grass, cracked dry earth, and anthills between the sidewalk and a concrete fence, both of which were radiating enough heat to fry an egg, nevermind a newly fledged hatchling.
We waited just out of sight for a while, but there was no sign of the parents nor of his nestmates. Not a sqwawk nor a flutter of wing nor a shriek of an angry jay defending their territory. Usually they would have come to feed him and guide him several times in half an hour or so, but this poor baby was all alone and rapidly deteriorating from ‘somewhat distressed’ to ‘in serious trouble’. While we watched and waited for parental rescue, he cried piteously repeatedly and hopped and walked around the same little patch of ground at first. As time passed, however, he became visibly dizzy, falling over every few steps and moving with less and less energy, and his cries became quieter before they finally stopped altogether.
When he fell in the anthill and stayed still — too exhausted and dehydrated to move — and the ants became to crawl all over him, we intervened.
A gentle hand and the dark, soft nest of a baseball cap folded in two seemed to reassure him somewhat, and careful dribbles of water into an open beak seemed to help him regain some of his energy. With no parent or nest in sight, however, we decided to take him home and nurture him until he could leave on his own.
We put him in a box lined with an old towel and gave him water as well as a water bottle for heat for night time. A little nesting material was heaped in a corner “because birds like nests more than towels,” and we dutifully hand-fed him a mixture of canned dog food and peanut butter followed by an eyedropper of water every time he started to sqwawk.
Which was often at first – every 25 minutes or so for the first afternoon. He would open his little beak wide and let out the loudest little warbly chirp that soon turned quite insistent.
We also left him a dish of seeds and nuts so he could feed himself at least a little, since as a fledgeling, he is old enough to learn to find his own food, and once he had regained some strength, he seemed quite happy to do so, only sqwawking to be fed about every hour during the day, and not at all after the sun went down.
Feeding him was an adventure in itself, and one the kids enjoyed tremendously. With baby finches tucked away in our birdcage in the house, they had been wanting desperately to play with the tiny babies, or at least try their hand at feeding them, but I insisted we leave the parents to do their job and that we didn’t disturb them any more than absolutely necessary (finches being quite panicky and easily startled with babies in the nest meant that even just the regular chore of providing food and water was as like as not to scare the poor dears). I wasn’t the most favourite parent for that ruling, but they did understand.
But now, with a much sturdier (and zillion-times larger) baby who was eager to be fed? They were in heaven.
Over the course of several days, the bird improved tremendously and started feeding himself from the seeds and nuts we provided, even going so far as to take several baths a day in the water dish. Not all of his baths were intentional – more than once he sort of fell in while drinking but once in the water decided to play a bit. The kids thought this was hilariously funny.
As a matter of fact, they thought a lot of things about this little guy were hilariously funny. Like his stubby little non-tail, and the way his tongue stuck straight up when he begged for food, and the way he attacked the chopstick of dog food like a ravenous beast, and the way he stuck his entire beak into the bowl of seed, coming up with some stuck to his face. He was a great source of amusement. “Silly bird!” was an oft-heard refrain for quite a few days.
And then the silly bird decided to eat a beetle.
A rather large beetle.
And, as often happens when you stuff too much food in your mouth and are determined to get it down your gullet as fast as possible… he choked. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there when this happened, but I did see the aftermath: one tiny bird whose eyes were apparently bigger than its stomach, lying motionless in the box with a still-kicking beetle lodged halfway down his throat. I pulled the beetle out of its throat and tried a gentle squeezing massage to see if I could do a sort of heimlich for birds and restart its breathing, but it was too late.
Our attempt to rescue this poor little guy didn’t end well, but I was encouraged that in the few days we had him, he seemed to thrive, and that the kids had the opportunity to nurse a living thing from sickness to health and learn more about birds and babies and caring for another living creature. They also learned, in watching our curious little guest, that curiosity and wonder are universal. It was a good experience, despite the tragic end. And even the ending was a lesson. That life is fragile, and short, and precious. That putting your whole heart into caring for someone else, no matter how it ends, is a good thing. That even the smallest of things can bring great joy. And that even when we are filled with sadness, we can hold the memory of joy in our hearts.