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AJ Escapes the Monster

The worst day in the young bird's life

You never know what you might find when you go outside for a bird walk, even on a summer day, on a trail you've walked a hundred times before.

Juvenile Blue Jay Only 8 A.M., and it was already hot, so I took a shady path through the woods near my house. I had only a few minutes before work, but it's always worth going out to look for birds.

For a ways it was the usual company. A wren scolded as I passed the failing elm that housed its nest. Cicadas buzzed. An indigo bunting sang somewhere hidden in the treetops. A squirrel chattered. Up ahead, several chickadees were calling chickadee-dee-dee-dee.

As I rounded a bend in the path, I heard a commotion off to my right. Something was jumping up, not quite clearing the vegetation. With each effort it was yanked down again. I wondered if someone could possibly have set a trap there in the woods. Or perhaps I was witnessing a life-and-death struggle between a predator and its prey. I couldn't see what it was, and suddenly I needed to know.

However, to get to where I could see, I would have to wade through a lush growth of poison ivy and blackberries. I was dressed for a walk on the safe, mown path, not for striking off into the woods. My lightweight clothing would offer no protection against thorns. And today I wore sneakers, instead of rubber boots for deterring the ticks and chiggers that lurk in taller vegetation.

Black-capped ChickadeeSuddenly birds were everywhere. An eastern towhee perched halfway up a tree, peering down the struggle on the ground. Chickadees flitted scolding from branch to branch. A white-eyed vireo (a bird I seldom see near my Iowa home) came into view as it made its way toward the commotion. It reminded me of schoolyard fights, with all the kids running to the scene.

I had to have a look. I could take another shower and throw all my clothes in the washing machine when I got home. To heck with scratches. I picked my way through the blackberries, toward the commotion. Halfway there, I aimed my binocular and saw flashes of blue and white. The thrashing victim was a blue jay. Perhaps because it saw me coming and thought its situation was getting more desperate, the jay screeched.

I found myself crashing through the undergrowth to the bird. Standing over it, I saw that the jay had a short crest and pale colors, so I knew it was a young bird. I still couldn't make out why it couldn't fly. Nothing seemed to be holding it—no trap, no cat, no snake or weasel.

The young jay twisted its head up toward me, opened its bill, and screeched louder yet. It struggled to fly but could rise only a couple of inches before being yanked back to the ground. I reached down and slid my hand under its belly. The jay jabbed at my thumb with its bill—hard enough to hurt. I lifted. Then I saw that a slender vine had slipped over the jay's back and under its wings. Maybe the bird had backed into it, or ducked under the vine and then pulled its wings out. But however it got itself noosed, that bird was trapped.

And now it was doubly trapped. It must have seemed the worst predicament of the inexperienced jay's life. First the tangling vine, and now the monstrous hand. The prisoner pecked my already-sore thumb some more.

Blue Jay FlightI snapped the vine easily. The bird wrenched out of my hand and beat away through the trees, screaming. I was smiling, mightily pleased with myself, and laughing at the bird's fear and indignation. Not a bit grateful, that jay.

There is no hard-and-fast rule about when it's OK for a human to intervene in a natural event. I usually don't get involved in predator-prey interactions. However, I do my best to keep raccoons from raiding the bluebird nest, and I try to persuade people not to let cats roam outside, especially during nesting season. Some naturalists go so far as to argue that we should not help when birds run into natural problems such as getting caught in an early snowstorm, or getting tangled in vines, in order to let natural selection do its work.

Blue JayBut when the young blue jay screeched in terror, I didn't weigh any such considerations. In no way was I going to leave him noosed on the forest floor. I think I didn't upset the balance of nature by abetting the escape of one young bird. And besides, I'm part of nature too!

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

This article appeared as Diane Porter's regular column, "Backyard Notes," in the August, 2007, issue of The Backyard Bird Newsletter.

Diane PorterText copyright 2007 by Diane Porter.

Photos copyright Michael and Diane Porter 1999-2007. (Diane and Michael took the photos on this page near their home in Iowa.)



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