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The Thing About Jemima

Friday, November 17, 2017


Jemima came to me as an 11-day old nestling, dehydrated, starving and very sick. It was three days before she kept her eyes open, and I had to force-feed her a lot. I think she had been jostled out of the nest, and her parents judged her not worth trying to save. Jays are smart. People like me are dumb. We lead with our hearts.

From that period of deprivation,  when she went unattended for at least a day, she suffered an interruption in the growth of her flight feathers. And when they reached full length, some of them broke off at the weak spots, which are called fault bars. 

October 7, 2017. Missing primaries.

As a result, this bird is flying on a lot fewer feathers than she should have. As fate and biology would have it, blue jays retain their juvenile flight feathers until late summer of their second year. She won't molt the broken stubs of her juvenile flight feathers until August 2018. Until then, I pray the ones that remain hold. But there are no guarantees with wild things. More could break off at any time. The fault bars run across all of them.

August 2018 is a long time to hold your breath. But you may be sure I am holding my breath.

Maybelline (left) and Jemima, November 11, 2017

I count on Maybelline and the local winter flock of jays to watch out for Jemima. Not much gets past a blue jay. Almost nothing gets past seven of them.

Jemima still flies. She flies with difficulty, and she doesn't get much altitude, but she's learned to hop to the top of a tree before she takes off if she needs to cover a lot of open space. That gives her time to look out for hawks before she launches, too.  

November 11, 2017. Chicken in her grip.

I tell her that if she can make it until her feathers molt in, she's going to be a beast among beasts. She's going to be the strongest blue jay that ever lived. She already is.

I took this photo on October 15. I was outside, and while I stood with my back to the sun, Jemima landed on the Bird Spa, which I keep scrubbed and sparkling and disinfected--for her. I was so close to her that my shadow fell across her. And she turned her back on me and drank. That is trust, and it is as rare in wild birds as rare can be. It's the most beautiful thing I know. She's not sitting on my shoulder any more. But she'll turn her back to me and drink, and if you know anything about how birds think, you know what that means. I won't do anything to betray that beautiful trust. And that would include capturing her to take her in until her feathers molt. Not going to happen.

I have been fighting with myself for months about whether to tell you about Jemima's flight feathers, mostly because I didn't want to have to deal with the blowback and handwringing. But I finally decided to. I've come to detest secrets, and to question the necessity of keeping them. So, having told this one, I'd ask that you not pity her. Jemima is tough and strong. She doesn't need sympathy. She needs support, good food, and her flock.

I control what I can control. I can give her food and clean water. I never miss a day.  Cooked herbed chicken. Pork roast. Pecans, pine nuts. Peanuts. Corn. Sunflower hearts. She gets the good stuff, and I keep it coming. I'm doing everything I can to help her. Know that. Every day I'm privileged to lay out her breakfast is a gift. 

Every single day she survives, every day I'm granted to watch her interact with her flock and her mate is a gift. It would be stupid of me to wish she had a full set of flight feathers, but of course I do, every damn time I see her fly. And then I smack myself back to reality and say, "It is what it is. Work with it. Tell her story."

I didn't see Jemima from November 1-November 9. Her chicken went untouched. Well, almost untouched. There's a Carolina wren who's developed a taste for chicken. While I worried and imagined the worst about my blue angel, I diverted myself photographing this wee mite stealing Jemima's food.

Wren, eating bird.

Wren, contemplating the propriety of having eaten bird. omgwhathaveijustdone?

Deciding not to feel guilty about it. To have more. It was delish.

So you can imagine, not seeing Jemima for 8 days, the kinds of thoughts and fears that coursed through my mind. The conclusions I came to. Maybe she'd tried to migrate after all. No. She knows damn well she can't do that. Maybe that little sharp-shin got her. No. She's as big as he is. She'd fight back. 

My mind is the devil's playground, most of the time. I've had way more to process lately, to make OK, than I feel I can handle. I melted down on Days 6 and 7, just lost it. I said goodbye to her, too. And having let go (mostly),  I was OK on Day 8. I had to move on. What's my choice? No matter what happens to you, moving on is your only choice. 

As my wise,
 hilarious new friend Stephen Andrew Jones says, "Let go, or be dragged." It's my new mantra. More than one person can have the same mantra, right? 

And then, on the morning of November 9, eight days gone, Jemima plopped onto the Secret Studio Feeder as if she'd never left. 

 She glugged down her chicken and hid about a pound of whole corn and went BOOGABOOGA at the mourning doves and stood down a chipmunk and was completely herself and most of all HERE. Alive. Jemima was not dead. NOT DEAD!!

Trying and failing to get Peanut # 7 in her gular pouch for air transport to a secret hiding place in the tangle on the east hill. To get there, she flies along the side of the house and up to a telephone line. Re-adjusts the peanut load, then launches on a sustained flight that's easily 130' diagonally across the meadow. Not that I just went out and neurotically paced it off, or anything. Who'd do something like that?

Jemima, flying with a full load of peanuts. And not nearly enough wing feathers. Nov. 12, 2017

My point is, Jemima is making her way. Whether or not she's aeronautically sound or even "releasable" matters not. She's out there, released since June 11, and she's playing the hand she's been dealt. Well, aren't we all?

Maybelline, Nov. 12, 2017

I've told beautiful Maybelline to keep watch over Jemima, and he says he will. He wishes she would share some of that chicken. I tell him to help himself!  He answers that he's still working up the courage. But sitting two feet from me through a pane of glass is a very good start, Maybelline!

Jem and Maybelline hung around like dirty shirts Nov. 9-12. And then didn't show up Nov. 16 or 17. I'm waiting it out again. Trying not to obsess. I'm not good at not obsessing about this bird. 

So. Know that this situation is hard for me, know that I'm doing the best I can by her, and please consider that in your comments and suggestions.  I believe in this bird, and you should, too. No pity. No sympathy. And most of all, no handwringing! I can sit here and wring my hands dry, completely unassisted. You'd be amazed how good I am at it.
letgo,orbedragged letgo,orbedragged letgo,orbedragged

Send us your positivity and strength. Please save the rest.  If a hawk takes her tomorrow, hers is still going to be a hell of a story. I've told you about 10% of it. The rest will be in the book. Just before Jem showed back up, I signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to tell her amazing story. Because I was still in the middle of my JEMIMA'S DEAD!!! meltdown, it didn't really hit me until the next day how lucky I am to be able to do that. How lucky can you get? A publisher is waiting for your illustrated book about a blue jay? You get to write about, photograph and paint blue jays now? For a living??

Really, though, as if not having a contract would stop me...nothing could stop me, because Jemima has become My Thing.

Saving Jemima.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2019. Be there. 

November 11, 2017. Full as a tick. She's not fat. She's big-boned.

Jemima Update: Enter Maybelline

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Do you notice blue jays more than you used to? When you see them, do you take the time to really watch them? Is there perhaps more affection and understanding in your gaze than usual?

Good. Jemima and I are doing our job.

While I don't expect Jemima's fans to undergo a full-blown BJO (Blue Jay Obsession) the way I have, a little obsession never hurt anybody. Everywhere I go, and I mean everywhere, I hear blue jays. I see blue jays. And when I hear blue jays, I grin from ear to ear. Because I don't hear birdcalls. I hear my girl yelling. I fancy I know what they're saying to each other. Thanks to having raised Jemima, I am hooked into the world of blue jays. And I am still an infant, still opening my eyes, taking most things in without knowing their meaning.
But I know a whole lot more than I did on May 15, the day before Jemima entered my life.

A beautiful jay in Mount Auburn Cemetery in mid-October. I walked around that place until I ran into some jays. And then I was in heaven, just me watching the blue people, doing what the blue people do. And them watching me back. Maybe seeing the pictures in my head of my Jemima, back home. Maybe getting why I was so glad to see them. I consider that a distinct possibility.

Here's the deal with Jemima as of November 13, 2017. She's still here.  I held my breath all through September and October and the first half of November, because that's when blue jays move, if they're going to move. And ours seemed to empty out. I'd hear jays in the woods, but the ones that had been coming to the feeders were gone, or otherwise occupied. It's hard to know with blue jays. 

The only two who stayed around the feeders were Jemima and the bird we call Maybelline. They've been attached to each other since they were both juveniles, in mid-August. And the fact that Jem and Maybelline stayed around, apparently for the winter, when the rest cleared out is no accident. That will become clear in my next post.

When you see two blue jays this physically close to one another, you can be sure they're close in a relationship way, too. 
"If you suspect something, it's been going on for a long time." (M.B. Zickefoose)

In this photo, Jemima's in the back. That's Maybelline in the foreground. You will notice how much black Maybelline has around his eyes, and on the side of his face and neck. Phoebe named him back in July, noting that he was wearing an awful lot of makeup. Yes. I just called Maybelline a guy. Wearing guyliner, I guess. Because I'm 99% sure he is. Just as I'm pretty darn sure Jemima's a female. And no, I'm not changing Maybelline's name to Maybe or Malebelline or anything like that. It's a perfectly good name.

Maybelline started accompanying Jemima in mid-August. Who knows when jays form their pair bonds? I do. While they're just a few months old, as juveniles, that's when. At least these two did. 
Maybelline, Aug. 26, 2017, waiting for Jemima to load up at the Secret Studio Feeder

I cannot tell you how delighted I am that Jemima found a friend, nay, a mate! in August, and that they're still an item in November, hanging even more closely together. I almost never see one without the other popping into view. It just makes everything better, so much better that they're together. 

Jemima is perfectly comfortable being watched and photographed from inside the studio. She's never known anything else. But she is no longer tame.  I remember when, if I left the screen out of the studio window, she'd come into the house and raid the mealworm bins! I remember stuffing her back out the window, laughing. Nope, nope, nope, you're not coming in any more. God, how I'd love to have that problem now! She'd never come into the house now.

 Such sweet memories. That was only July. A lot changes in a few months when you're wild. 

I've devoted most of my time since late June to writing Jemima's story. It has as many shades and intricacies as her exquisite plumage, twists and turns and subplots. 

I started writing for publication in 1986. I've been writing and illustrating my own books since 2004. But I've never had a project like this one. It is a great and delicious luxury to tell one bird's story. To tell not the stories of 26 species, as I did in The Bluebird Effect; not 17 species, as in Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest; but the story of one singular bird. 

I get up every day and can't wait to get to my laboratory, where I sit and write and stare out the window and wait for Jemima. I hate going away. I even hate going into town. 

Don't want to close my eyes 
I don't want to fall asleep
'Cause I'd miss you, babe,
And I don't want to miss a thing.

Next: The Thing About Jemima

Remember Pinky?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

You'll remember Ellen's twins, Flag and Pinky. Flag, the doe, is a regular in the yard now. I'm delighted to say that Pinky lives on, though he's much more rarely seen.

Here he is on January 7, 2017. Just wee buttons on his fawn forehead. Born in the spring of 2016.

This elegant little fellow tiptoed into the yard on October 5, 2017.

When he raised his head, I knew him.

There's that pale pink nose. And now he's got a graceful lyre-shaped set of antlers.

I see Ellen in his face.

He came back on October 18, and it looked to me like he'd had an allergic reaction to something--his eyes were pink-rimmed and his muzzle was bright orange! 

He had a line of beggarticks stuck over his left eye.

You can see his white spats, Ellen's mark.

It thrills me to pieces to have these pretty little bits of Ellen coming to my yard.

What a difference nine months make! Stay well, stay safe, dear Pinky. I hope I get to see you all grown up, like your big brother Beck.

Pinky  Jan. 7, 2017

Pinky March 11, 2017

Pinky October 5, 2017

Liam is 18!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


At eight months, he was spherical, and not always as jolly as he appears here; fussy he was much of the time, thanks to his tiny Eustachian tubes. We eventually got those fixed. 

Fussiness aside, there was a sweetness about that baby boy that I could not walk by. I just had to kiss him, every time. 

All those kisses added up and soaked in, I think, and the older he got, the sweeter he got.

The willow tree that's just crowning up over the deck railing here was planted, a slender whip, when I was big with Liam. And now, 18 years later, it's leaning perilously downslope, a tremendous tree, too big for its trunk, apparently, from the way it suddenly throws off pieces of itself, as if it's done with them.

And the little boy who had to stretch to see over the railing is leaning over it now, with a faraway look in his soft blue eyes. 

And his big sister is still looking over his shoulder, making sure he's OK. 

They're a unit, always better together. That has been the greatest gift--the way the two of them blend together, like root beer and ice cream, making something better than either alone. 

 We took her to Maine to look at a college, and she wound up staying. Ah, they were so young.

And now she's about to graduate, and he's the one looking at colleges now. 

They're both taking off. 

 Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving. But how can they know it's time for them to go?

Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming...I have no thought of time. 

Who knows where the time goes?--Sandy Denny, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?"

It's a great gift to be able to step outside the moment, and recognize the sweetest times as they are happening. A fine game of Jungle Jem, interrupted by a jealous little man who thought Jem's exercise bars were supposed to be petting HIM. That was only May! It was six months ago; it was yesterday; it was forever ago.

We were there for it. We lived it to the fullest. No love was spared. Always, there's been love, so much love. They'll carry that as long as they live. 

We haven't missed a moment, haven't missed a chance to say I love you. 

Today, I was headed into town to try to do too many things. I go into town so seldom now, all the little things pile up into big wads. And the more I put it off, the bigger the wad that awaits me in town. So be it.

I took the back roads, because it was a rainy November day and the sassafras and the oaks are  on fire, sizzling in the mist. I saw the gray cow named Christine standing,  negative bovine space against the rich autumn foliage, and I couldn't pull over fast enough.

I parked about a hundred yards up, grabbed my big rig with the long lens, and began loping back to capture her beauty. I was going along pretty good, almost there, when a car pulled up alongside me. The driver was rapping along to the radio in a deep voice. He had a huge smile on his face. It was Liam. And of course, because he's Liam, he stopped to talk with his Ma. And because he's Liam, I had to give him a kiss.

We'd both taken the back road on a rainy November day, me, reluctantly headed to town; he, joyfully headed home. Because for Liam and me, it's all about color, and heading home.

"Hi ma.  As I drove up I thought I saw a little black inkblot, running alongside you. To your right."

I had no doubt he did. How I wished I could see that inkblot, too. I cried a little and then we laughed, too, at the likelihood of his seeing anyone else but his mother, out here in rural Ohio running along a  country road, carrying a big camera, running back to shoot some cows. Town-wads be damned. There are cows and mist and colors. And those are what will matter in the end.

How could I not? They are anthracite to the trees' fire. And I've always liked placing inkblots in a landscape.

 Liam shoots cows, too. Last summer, making Bully's portrait. Bully, who would let us rub his curly forehead. 

After Liam pulled away, leaving me to my cowtography, a raven flew over, croaking sonorously. Ravens aren't supposed to be here in Appalachian Ohio, but I've seen four in the last three weeks. A pair, cavorting over the orchard, just last Saturday!  As the raven croaked along, two red-headed woodpeckers answered back. I swear, the birds are always talking to me, following me. I need to listen to them, get out more. I'm gonna do that.

If this isn't the oddest birthday post. All I'm trying to say is that I love this boy, who appreciates everything so deeply, and is so gentle and kind, quiet and gracious. 

I'm trying to say Happy Birthday to you, dear Liam, in a circuitous, cow in autumn, raven croaky way. 

Phoebe is much better at saying happy birthday! A mysterious soft package arrived yesterday, and Liam had instructions to open it immediately. 

There was a note in it that said, 

"Welcome to adulthood, little buddy.
 Here's the first thing you'll need.
Your big sis"

When I came home this evening, a giant flying squirrel came out to help me with the groceries. He had come straight home and climbed into his Adult Onesie.

"I was cold. And this is the best thing when you're cold."

Liam, you're all about taking joy in simple pleasures. That will take you farther in life than anything else. It will take you home.

And I still can't walk by you without kissing you. Happy 18, WilLiam Henry Thompson IV!

Love always, Ma

Remember Flag?

Sunday, November 5, 2017


I spend a lot of time looking for and at deer. I am actually happy that Daylight Savings Time has started, because I love raising the blind on something more like this, instead of total darkness. 
It's depressing to wake up at 5:30 and have to wait until 7:30 for the first light to creep under the blinds. 

So I get up and get busy. People who ask me how I do so much each day probably don't take into account that I get up well before the birds do. Today, I'm finishing up the last of a million yard chores involved in buttoning the place up for winter. I cleaned the pond last evening, racing the fading light. I've given up on using the siphon, which, thanks to endless amounts of decaying plant material, clogs every ten seconds, and wound up just scooping up muck and detritus on the bottom with a net. Faster. Easier. Same net effect. 

This morning, having climbed to the tower to watch the sun evidently rise behind a thick blanket of clouds, I burned a year-old Christmas tree. It went with surprising difficulty, me thinking back wistfully to our tradition of burning it on May Day night. It would go up like a torch while we howled like wolves. The old, forgotten tree being soggy and mostly without needles, took every bit of spare cardboard I had to even get it going. It's still smoldering out there. The point was to get it and an enormous wad of morning glory vine, laden with evil seed, burned. I'm done with the Japanese hybrid Flying Saucers. They were early and floriferous, but the overall effect of this variegated flower was a dull bluish white. Nope to the nope. And they set viable seed like they intended to take over the earth. I've had to make two bonfires just to burn the vines. It's back to Clark's Heavenly Blue, for good, even if I have to wait until October for flowers.  

September 2016. Flying Saucers, ehhh, zzzzz.

November 4, 2016. Clark's Heavenly Blue. Now there's an apt name.

I probably can't mention Ellen without giving many of my gentle readers a pang. I get them too. But in the Circle of Life Department, all is well. Pangs just go with the territory.

Remember Flag, Ellen's little daughter? Flag is one of her last set of twins, born spring 2016, that also included a buck named Pinky.

Here she is on December 14, 2016, a little over a year ago. Her baby picture. 

October 17, 2017

And here's the lovely young lady now. This October, she began coming into the yard every day, looking for the corn and sunflower seed her crooked little mama used to love.

And in coming to my yard, she brings me joy. Great joy.

No asymmetry here. Flag is classically beautiful, untouched by whatever left Ellen crooked and bent. She has kept her big square throat patch and her enormous white eye rings. Yes, it's Flag, looking back at me with swiveling ears. What a difference a year makes!

December 14, 2016. She was such a baby! and orphaned since the first week of November. 

But she's come through fine, with a little help from Ellen's friend.

I know it's just habit and corn that brings Flag to my yard, but the halting trust in her soft eyes is real. It is something I have earned, and I'm keenly aware that it's a privilege to see her, each time. It's a privilege to be able to watch her drop her head, knowing I'm watching her, to eat. That takes a lot of trust.

She still wears her little white toe shoes, the mark that Ellen left on all her babies. I am looking forward to seeing Flag in full winter coat. It's just coming in now, and she's still patchy and a bit red. She's going to be so beautiful when her thick dusky blue winter hair is all in. 

I thank whoever sends Flag here to visit. These wild friends of mine have taken on new importance to me, bereft as I am of the animal companionship I'd grown accustomed to.  I hope to stay worthy of her trust, and I hope too that she will use her sharp young eyes and ears to stay away from people who don't know or care what she means to me. I fall in love with every deer I come to know. I can't help it. 

I've learned that it's easier on the heart to love the small does and the spindly bucks. They stay around longer. Be safe, dear Flag. I'm counting on you.

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