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Survivor Peg

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

I got home from Costa Rica late Tuesday, March 3. Wednesday was a blur of scrambling around catching up, waiting for my lost suitcase to find its way home, waiting for The Biggest Snow of the Year to hit. The snow started that evening and piled up to about 13" overnight and the next day. 

The feeders were mobbed. I was so glad Bill had bought more seed while I was away. I got up early and suited up to shovel out the greenhouse and my paths to the compost, bird bath and feeders. The power was off, of course; we almost never have snow without losing power out here. Bill worked for a couple of hours shoveling out the walk and setting up and running extension cords to our Honda generator, which I had bought with literally my last $700 after a nine-day power outage two summers ago. I'd had it. I was done playing Pioneer. Life was hard for awhile after that, but I am very glad I bought it. Life's better now.

We plugged in the generator, only to have the power come back on. I unplugged everything and put the cords away. I had just finished doing that when the power went off again for the rest of the day. That was funny. 

We watched the birds filling up on our offerings, and it felt good. 

Even with all the beauty surrounding us, I began to fret. I hadn't seen Peg since I'd gotten back from Costa Rica. Peg is a crippled blue jay who was injured, perhaps by a hawk, in November 2013 with a break high on her right leg. I saw her right afterward, stumbling around with blood on her feathers, watched her slowly heal and adapt to living her life with only one functional leg--a tall order for a blue jay, for any bird. To my astonishment she migrated north in the spring of 2014, and returned here in November, to spend this winter with us, too. Though we see them year-round in Ohio, blue jays do migrate. Our breeders are replaced by birds from farther north, while ours go south in winter. You see them migrating in big flocks in September. Peg probably breeds somewhere in Canada. I am agog that she has made it this long, being unable to process food in her feet, hop on the ground, perch normally, or preen very well. She can't even scratch her face. Imagine.

Peg in January 2015

 Peg hadn't been coming in since the boys had run out of Zick Dough partway into my trip. And now this, this Snowmageddon. 

And then I saw her.


Oh, Peggy, my Peggy! She looked horrible. Her feathers damp and disheveled, something going on on her back...had the Cooper's hawk grabbed her??

She kept shivering her wings in that hopeless way of sickly birds, but made no move to preen them into order. My heart fell to my feet to see my sweet little friend brought so low.  And the temperature due to plunge below zero tonight.

 But I didn't stand there crying.

Though I had worlds to do to get ready for a talk and a flight to Massachusetts the next day, I dropped everything to make more Zick Dough  for my Peggy girl. Because the power was still off, I melted the peanut butter and lard over a low flame on the gas stove, then hand-mixed it in a triple batch in a big lobster pot on the floor, like I always used to do.  (That link goes to an amusing video). And you know what? That's a heck of a lot easier, faster and cleaner than trying to get it all in the KitchenAid mixer bowl, and trying to keep it there as the mixer throws it all over the counter. The trick, I discovered, is to keep it to a triple batch, and not try a quadrupled or even quintupled batch, like I used to do. It mixes up like a dream by hand when tripled. Bigger than that, and it's just too much to mix by hand without bending your best spoon.
But you can't get any more than a triple batch in a big Kitchenaid anyway. So why use the mixer at all? Hand-mix it. Big pot. Boom. You're done.

I put the still-warm dough out and called to Peg by name, but she flew weakly into the woods, and I never saw her eating it. I had to resign myself to the possibility that I'd never see her again. I had already photographed her, because I follow the arcs of birds I know, whether they're good or bad, happy or sad. I want to know what happens to my loved ones. My heart ached.

The next morning, before I left, I put piles of Zick Dough out on the deck, knowing the starlings would annihilate it before Peg could get to it. She was nowhere in sight. I waited around, hoping for a Peg sighting, but was skunked. I was there, however, to document my first instance of the strictly vegetarian house finches sampling the lard mix!
Caught him with the dough in his bill! Snow and below zero temperatures will do that to you.

Then I left for the airport. The boys kept putting the dough out while I was gone, but they never saw Peg.

I had a great trip to Massachusetts, speaking at the Mass Birders' Meeting at Bentley University in Waltham, reconnecting with wonderful friends like my birding mentor Bob Stymeist! You would think, having shown me my first Swainson's thrush and vagrant Townsend's warbler in 1977, that he might look older, but he's aged like fine wine. Whatta guy. He told me he'd come across my common eider specimen at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and said it was the best one in the collection. To which I replied, "It's hard to screw up an eider. Two-inch deep feathers will cover a multitude of sins."  Imagine him coming across my specimen, noticing that someone had done a particularly good job on it; seeing my name on the tag, and remembering having shown me my first Swainson's thrush. How sweet is that? Even sweeter: being able to thank him in person for being so kind to a bouncing, undoubtedly pretty annoying, 19-year-old baby birder. Here we are now, all growed up, not 19 any more.

I had a wonderful visit with my sister and niece, took a hike with Phoebe and hilarious, wonderful grand-nephews Will and Max, then came home on March 9. I looked anxiously for Peg. No joy. Same all through the pouring rain of March 10. She was nowhere to be found.

March 11 had a surprise for me. I'd been faithfully putting out Zick Dough at the appointed, agreed-upon hour, and this time, Peggy kept the appointment.
Whatever had happened to her back in the snowstorm had resolved. Maybe it was just ice after all.

Lord knows she doesn't need another injury. I checked out her good foot. Looked better than the last time I saw her.

 Peg filled her gular pouch, then filled it again.

And, in the manner of all jays, she stuffed in just a little more for the road.

I love you, Peg. Wherever you've been hiding, welcome back. I'll keep you in Zick Dough until it's time to migrate. Promise.

PEG!! March 11, 2015, alive, preparing to cache some Zick Dough, and as well as she can be.

 I wouldn't have given you a nickel for her on March 5. But there's life in the old girl yet. 

Is it any wonder I love her so?

She's the subject of my next column, "True Nature," in Bird Watcher's Digest's May/June issue. You can subscribe here. 


Such a happy ending. You had me worried most of the way through the story.

Oh my goodness, but now I'm loving her too! Go Peg! And Julie, thank you so very much being such a good human! And I love my little backyard birds magazines! They are the perfect size for my practice bird drawings!

That was quite a on-the-edge-of-my-seat story! Oh, I am so happy Peg returned--well, and hungry for your Zick Dough. And you were there to see her return! Julie, we all slog through the days of our lives (maybe I should speak for myself!), but you put a spin on them that makes me look forward to your next post! Look with delight and anticipation! Thanks as usual.

I'll take your word for it that those are the same bird because I'd never believe it from someone else. Very happy to see her so sleek and trim though.

I was on tenterhooks throughout your post! Thank goodness Peggy has returned -- and looking so much better! Perhaps she was filling up on your Zick Dough® while you were away, and that gave her the energy to look and feel better. Anyway, I'm glad that I did not have to break out the tissues for this one!

(Do blue jays migrate? I see them all year, so I assumed they stayed in one area.)

Oh, that is just wonderful! Good for you and for Peg!

So good to start my day with a Yay!
Yay to you, and yay to Peg too!

Thank God for happy endings!I've had a gimpy Chickadee come back that has an unusable leg. Always glad to see that tough little bird has made it.

Posted by Lee Hermandorfer March 12, 2015 at 10:31 AM

I love a happy ending! Isn't it amazing how attached we become to the birds who stand out in some way or another. I can not wait for the next BWD. : )

Have a Chickadee with only one leg this winter. Has no trouble at the suet feeder, but is a bit off balance trying to peck open the oilseed. Look for him/her everyday and so far here several times a day. Love that Peg looks so good too. Thanks for sharing all your birds and family with us. Linda in San Antonio.

Posted by Anonymous March 13, 2015 at 10:01 AM

Aw. So glad she came back.

I have read the "True Nature" article, and I have to say both the article and your blog have been a joy to read. Will be posting to Facebook for others to see.

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