by Jane Solomon
I love nesting season. Everywhere I look in the garden, I see birds busily coming and going with worms or insects in their beaks. Inevitably this means that countless baby birds must leave the twiggy safety of home and face all manner of threats.
Which leads me to last Saturday morning when I was out in the garden with my constant companions, our standard poodles, Sadie and Roxie. Bluejays are very conspicuous in protecting their young and I was well aware of a pair overhead creating a noisy distraction. All at once, however, chaos broke out when the dogs started chasing something in the ground cover and the jays started shrieking and diving.
As fast as I could, I grabbed the dogs and dragged them into the house. When I returned, there was a baby bluejay, quite ruffled, but sitting upright and I hoped unharmed. With the danger removed, I decided to give it some time to rest quietly and return when I figured out what to do.
But what is the right thing to do? Shouldn’t a baby bird that can’t fly be in a nest? Surely he’d fallen out. It’s a reasonable assumption (especially for someone whose favorite childhood book was P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?). I checked the internet. Apparently hatchlings don’t fall out very often – generally only after heavy winds or a big storm. It was far more likely that we’d come across a fledgling, which, as it turns out, can’t fly when it first leaves the nest.
Those first flights are really glides from one branch to another and sometimes the fledglings just miss. When they do, and and if you stumble across one, doing nothing is generally the right thing to do. Barring a predator or the trauma of two idiotic poodles who want to play, these grounded fledglings are usually guided along by their parents and make out just fine.
Unfortunately our little bluejay had the idiotic poodle experience. He was surely exhausted, terrified and had perhaps gotten himself into a spot where his parents couldn’t easily lead him out. Plus, I wasn’t sure whether he was a nestling or a fledgling, so I decided he could use our help. I recruited my 13-year-old son Sammy.
There are great online bird resources. The advice for a nestling is to make a nest using a berry box with some tissue paper and secure it to a tree branch. The parents will then come and tend to him in his new nest. I decided to go that route because if we’d found a nestling he’d be safe and if he was a fledgling, he’d just leave.
Catching and holding a bird for the first time can be a bit intimidating because it’s panicked, often shrieking, its wings are flapping and you’re afraid of getting pecked. I’ve picked up quite a few wild birds and I know the key is to be firm and decisive, but gentle. Our little guy seemed to be in fine shape when I nabbed him and looked him over. I gave Sammy the lucky job of holding him while I got a ladder and made and mounted the nest. Once I saw how calm the bird had become in Sammy’s hands, I also went to find the camera.
After all my fuss, I gently placed the little bluejay in the makeshift nest. He instantly stepped out, tried to fly and landed right back on the ground.
In a tone unique to teenagers, Sammy flatly stated the obvious: “Guess he’s a fledgling,” and we both had a good laugh. Following the instructions for a fledgling, I then picked him up and perched him on a branch, calmed him for a moment so he’d stay, and we quietly crept away.
During all of this, the parents were in the trees overhead, watching closely but not uttering a sound. We watched from a distance for a while, but nothing happened. I walked quietly back to check and found him right where I put him, fast asleep. So I did the logical thing – grabbed my wallet and treated Sammy and myself to a delicious lunch at Bread Furst.
Two hours later that little bird was still sleeping! I waited another half hour before checking again. I found him awake, looking refreshed and peeping for his parents. Minutes later he was gone.