Background Switcher (Hidden)

Jemima Jay Comes Home

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


There are some stories that are too big, too sweet, too wonderful to tell. I've been so busy living these blue jay days, these rare and unrepeatable Jemima days,  that I haven't had time to write about her or share it all. I've given myself and my time over to nurturing her and recording her every new behavior with video and photos. She's too big, her story too good, to be passed over, and it's also too big and good to cram into a bunch of blog posts.

Pulling in the clothes at sundown, and the Yard Imp swoops in to have a chat. Photo by Bill Thompson III.

Appearing after a long day mostly away and wilding. I'm so grateful to see her and give her some mealworms and a cool drink! Photo by Bill Thompson III

I've never had a corvid in my care. Raising a corvid is to raising an ordinary songbird
as raising a chimpanzee is to raising an ordinary songbird.

Get the picture? Yes, we see!

But the dam is beginning to crumble and I must write about this bird. Not blogwriting, those choppy little bits meant as captions, but writing writing. I have to tell her story while she's here, while it's fresh, while it's still unfolding, because it would be a sin not to. Was I planning to write about a blue jay this summer? No. I was planning a lot of travel and even more pushing Baby Birds with talks and book signings. And I still have to do that, because I set it all up before Jemima came to me and turned my life upside down. Do I worry about leaving her? Oh yes. For what I'll miss, for what she might do, for everything. For example: As I write, she's chasing an adult jay around the yard, and the adult seems not at all perturbed about it. Maybe even welcoming. What is happening? I have to watch. I try to get photos and fail. If I'm not here, this stuff is still going to go on, and I will miss it.  But I'm headed to Massachusetts and Connecticut in mid-July to give a bunch of talks, and miss it I shall. My version of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). (See "Julie in the Flesh" on the left sidebar of this page for my appearances.)

I'll be frank: my muse has eluded me of late. She can't get through all the other crap that's going on in my anxious brain. Every once in a great while I manage to squeeze out a blogpost, but that's about it. If they seem particularly good lately, it's because a hell of a lot of creative juice is backed up in my pipe, and the drips that manage to get out are extra tasty. It's been a tough year, so I appreciate your bearing with the pauses and interruptions in the blog.

Jemima's World

Like every other creative spirit out there, I yearn to breathe free and do what I do best. But it's going to be awhile before my horizons are clear and I can focus on my real work, get a book proposal out, keep the wolf a little farther away from my door.

This morning as I worked at the drawing table, Jemima came to have breakfast at her Secret Studio Feeder under the shelter of a crank-out window. A screen keeps her from coming in the house.

She'd eaten breakfast, and she started giving the little burt-burt-burt vocalization that means she'd like to have a visit. She hopped up on the struts and fluttered her wings, begging me to take the screen out. "Jemima Iris Jay. You are a free bird. You should not still be asking to come in the house." 
She considered that for a moment, then started pecking the soft nylon screen as if she meant to break in. I put my hand against the screen and she only pecked harder. That beak means bidness.

Jays.They are thugs at heart. And they know how to get exactly what they want. I removed the screen and welcomed the prodigal in for a brief visit. The other choice was having a Jemima-sized hole in my screen, and that wouldn't do.

I'll let this video show you just a bit of the uncommon thuggy sweetness that is Jemima Jay. Put that together with aged, extra floppy maple-flavored Bacon, and you have quite a sammitch.

Fair Ellen-A Remembrance

Sunday, June 25, 2017

October 15, 2015
I could tell it was her 500 yards away, because she was so small, and her head never went up quite right, or as high as it should. 
I was always glad to see her, glad, I guess, that she'd survived another week, month, year, or minute.
My heart followed her all year long, for nine years. 

Life is hard enough for a whitetail who's born perfect. 

But there was something going on with Ellen, that looked to me like a birth defect.

Her high-domed forehead, her crooked eyes, the swing and slant of her head.

No, the girl wasn't right, and I loved her fiercely for it, and for her spirit that put her shoulder to shoulder with does a third larger than she, and duking it out for her place in her little herd.

When a cretin killed her with his cruel arrow in November, 2016, giving her to the coywolves who reduced her to a small pile of bones in the hayfield

something in me couldn't let her go. I went out there with a bucket and took her head, but not before the coy-wolves chewed off her nasal bones. 

I'm a long way past caring if anyone thinks that's weird. If you're here and reading, you're ready for weird. Science Chimps don't care if people think they're weird. The need to know overwhelms.

I put Ellen's head in a bucket and kept it covered with water. I covered that with a cardboard box so it wouldn't smell too bad. And it didn't, because it was winter, and it was out in the garage.

On warm days I'd dump it and put in fresh water. Other than that, I let it go. This is a process called "maceration," and having done it with a gorgeous 8-point buck head (not the one pictured below), I know water to be the greatest cleanser and purifier of all. 

All you have to do is give it time.

Along about mid-May, she was ready to come out. That malodorous bucket of water, decanted and rinsed,  gave a little piece of Ellen back to me. 

After a couple of days in the May sunshine she was clean as a whistle.

I considered her asymmetrical eye sockets

and the leftward sweep of her entire skull.

Her teeth were in remarkably good shape, I thought, for a doe of at least 9 years.

Her domed forehead stands out in profile.

 But wait. There's something extra, something flat out weird going on at the back of her skull. What's that unit sort of dripping off the back?

Oh my God. Her atlas vertebra is fused to her skull. This vertebra, which should be free-moving and articulated and separated by a cartilage pad from the skull proper, is anything but. No wonder Ellen couldn't raise her head! And no wonder it pointed off to the side!

For contrast, here's a normal whitetail skull (below). 

Occipital condyles, in place and normal. Not fused to the atlas vertebra and drooling off the back of his skull. 

So Ellen's foramen magnum is about 2" farther down her spine than it would normally be. 

My friend Boneman (Bruce Mohn, who will be forever remembered for the dinosaur talon he made for my dino-crazy Liam) asked his colleague Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate functional morphologist at Ohio University, about such a deformity, and Dr. Witmer was kind enough to go into OSU's collection and photograph this somewhat similar doe skull. A partial fusion, not as dramatic as Ellen's. Dr. Witmer advised that this can be the result of an injury or a congenital condition. I note the same domed cranium in this animal that Ellen displayed, and I'm going to guess they both were born this way.

Ah Ellen. Even in death you teach me. It comforts me to take you back from cruel people and the ivory teeth of scavengers,

to keep a bit of you safe in the studio, where I so often sat and watched you come shyly to the spruce for corn.

There will never be another like you.

If you are just stumbling onto Ellen, and you want her whole story, and you have an entire box of Kleenex handy, read "Love Lies Bleeding."  It starts out talking about morning glories and then goes to oil and gas drilling and finally comes around to the idiotic way that I, and the world, lost Ellen. Then I give you links to ALL the Ellen posts, in order. It's good, it's worth reading.

Painting in Audubon's Lines

Sunday, June 18, 2017


We all have one in a closet somewhere: an old print that has lost its lustre. 

Sunlight happens. A print that's hanging in a corner that's dark in January is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of morning sun in June. Shine enough such June morning sunbeams on a print, even one behind conservation glass, and bad stuff happens. 

The Arctic tern loses all the color in its blood-red bill and feet, and falls to sea, a pallid, lifeless ghost. 
Red is a notoriously fugitive pigment, subject to fading. We painted our house red, and I hope when it fades it'll have some nice wabi-sabi going on, like an old barn. At least that's the plan. I had to paint it barn red.

My friend Alan Poole has the most beautiful home near the shore in Massachusetts. I wrote about it, and his elegant, spare yet abundant lifestyle, here

In that sweet home hung two identical Audubon prints of Arctic tern. They date to 1835, and they were taken from two Elephant Folios. Many of these original collections,  depicting America's birds at 100% life size, and sold by subscription in Audubon's day,  were broken up, with the pages being sold separately. I'm not sure how Alan wound up with two Arctic terns, but they looked nice in his seaside home. 

Well, they could have looked a lot better with some color.

Here's the little block of wood pasted to the paper on the back of one of the prints. Who knows when this thing was first framed? It was in the days of manual typewriters, and long enough ago for the paper to go yellow.  And I'm trying to imagine folding back the margins of an Elephant Folio print. Geesh!! I guess cutting it down to size was too horrifying to contemplate, and framing all that white paper expanse too expensive.

When I visited in December, Alan asked me if I'd color the tern's feet and bill for him. I gulped. Paint? On an original Audubon Elephant Folio print? Me??

Umm....sure....if you want me to...
Are you sure?

"Look," Alan said. "These aren't doing me any good all faded out like this. Just give it a shot, see how it goes. If the first one turns out well, I'll give you the second to restore."

It was hard getting the print out of its frame. Those glazier's points were rusted in place. But I finally wrassled it free, thinking that it would probably take me longer to do that than to do the restoration.

I Googled images of Audubon's Arctic tern to see how an unfaded print might look. Then I started small, with the eye, and immediately knew I was in for a ride. For though the ink had faded badly, it was still on the paper, and it was resisting my watercolors something fierce. I managed to darken that eye and the bird immediately looked better, more alive. From there I moved on to the bill and feet, holding my breath as I painted inside the tiny fine lines, trying very hard not to go outside them, for there would be no correcting any mistakes on this plushy soft paper. The corner and tips of that bill...aaaack. Fine brush, held breath, steady hand. I got this.

Already it looked so much better. 

The bird still looked flat to me, and I studied the images I'd pulled up. It needed some sense of light and a sense of the direction of that light. Looks like Audubon intended the light source to be in the upper left corner of the page. That's the classical mode, makes sense. I took a bunch of deep breaths and started in on the bird's left wing, which was in shadow. I painted a cool blue-gray wash over the wing, and it took on a roundness it had lacked. I then found Audubon's shadow line on the mantle and painted a darker cool gray wash along it and to the right of it. Boom. The bird began to pop. Do click on the images to see detail.

One of the bolder things I did was to paint some very pale shadow lines to delineate the edges of the white feathers on the rump and tail. I like how that worked. I also painted his faded toenails black while I was working on his feet. I darkened the black on the primary tips, too.

It was a thrilling sensation to run washes over the fine black lines of Robert Havell's engraving. I could feel them beneath the brush. I don't paint birds in anywhere near the detail these prints exhibit; I paint masses of feathers and don't bother with barbule lines. But oh I loved painting over Audubon's and Havell's meticulously detailed work. 

I am keenly aware that purists might faint to see me taking watercolor washes over an original Elephant Folio print. But the owner of the print had asked me to and I was having a ball! Was I altering an historical artifact? Sure. Polluting it? Maybe. Improving it? I thought so, and I hope Alan will too.

When I got to the bird's black cap, the faded ink stopped my progress. It was resisting my paint. So I painted what I could, keeping the faded blue top on the cap, but darkening the lower border of the cap and working with Audubon's highlight areas to create dimension on the bird's head. Yeah, that works.

Then I did something that took nerve. I had always disliked the hard, oversized, sharp, triangular highlight on the eye of this bird. It reminded me of early Walt Disney depictions of Mickey Mouse. Early Mickey is referred to as "Pie-eyed Mickey" by collectors of Disney ephemera. 

 To me, it dated the piece, to a time when that's how people painted highlights on eyes. It made the bird look like a static, dusty museum mount. I wanted this tern to come to life! So I took a deep breath and painted over most of that giant pie slice of white. Then I took a thin wash of Chinese white and cerulean over the top of the eyeball, following its curve. Again, BOOM. Maybe not historically correct, but history's taking a back seat to color and life here. I can almost hear this tern's ratchety growl as it plunges toward the sea.

I think I'm done. I didn't touch the sky and seascape at all.  I loved the colors. Somehow the blue hadn't faded nearly as much as the bird did. I was very thankful for that, because I didn't think I could keep a wash smooth and even over such a large area. Phew!

 With some difficulty, I held myself back from putting a white highlight on the culmen of the bill, because Audubon hadn't. It needs one, but I didn't want to gild the lily any more than I already had.

I was so excited by the time I finished the restoration that I thought I'd add a little historical footnote. If it got sold as a fabulous example of original aquatint whose color had somehow miraculously been maintained, I wanted an astute dealer to see this minuscule penciled annotation, which would explain a lot.

Can't keep a Science Chimp down. It's all about the data, and the story. Speaking of stories...

I'll close with this photo of me and DOD, ca. 1971. Check out the Audubon print we're discussing. I'm destroyed. It's too good. 

Photo by Dan Kemp, ca. 1971

Miss you so much, DOD.  Holy cow. I just noticed that I've scheduled this post for your birthday, without even meaning to. That's what you call synchronicity. Hope you're watching. Know you are. 

xoxoxox Doo-Baby

 (Two Too Many)

Blue Jay Days

Sunday, June 11, 2017

It's been two weeks since I've posted, an eternity in the Zickiverse, but there is an excellent reason for that. I have met my Waterloo, and she came to me as a starving, dehydrated little 12-day-old lump of winsome, found by a kind teacher in the middle of the street and left in a safer spot to wait for parents who never came.  I started, via Facebook messages, to give her savior instructions on how and what to feed the tiny jay, and thought I'd make plans to meet in a few days to take the bird if she was successful in keeping it alive. I was planning to take the jay up to Columbus, to turn her over to the Ohio Wildlife Center, which is completely snowed under hundreds of birds and animals, and certainly doesn't need another baby bird to raise. I looked at the photo of this poor waif, sighed and let the wave roll over me. "Just bring her to the Bird Watcher's Digest office. I'll take care of her," I typed.  I was doomed, sucked in again, because you can't tell someone who's never done it exactly how to save a small life. These are things you must do yourself. 

By the time I'd fed and watered her and medicated her for some unknown ailment that made her listless and turned her droppings seafoam-green; by the time, four days later, her eyes finally showed a little sparkle (which I could see because she was now able to keep them open), I was sunk. I wasn't going to turn her over to anyone. I had to see this bird through.

May 16, ca. Day 12, the day she fell from her nest.

The thing about taking on a baby bird is that if you say yes, that's all you're going to do for the next month, month and a half, or two. I don't think people realize that when they pepper me with pleas for help, assuming that taking care of baby birds is what I do, right? I understand wanting to do the right thing. Getting in touch with someone who can offer help that helps is Step One. But I have to say it's a full-time job being that first stop for so many people. I finally engineered the removal of my home phone number from the state wildlife rehabber lists, had just begun to enjoy the fact that every phone ring didn't have a feathery problem for me to solve,  just in time to become, by default, a national baby bird rescue factotum, courtesy of Facebook. 

Checking out her new home, May 16 afternoon. She may just know how lucky she is. I sure do.

 I am only just grasping what it means to be easily accessible to 4,000 plus acquaintances, plus their friends, and their friends' friends, who are now all able to fire off questions and requests for advice and assistance at any hour, often accompanied by photos that squeeze my heart. Not just baby birds; it's birds fighting windows, birds in dryer vents, birds in cats' claws or found on the sidewalk, having fallen out of an eave. It's anything, and it's raining down on me so thickly I want to wear a hat. Who ya gonna ask? The workload is not trivial. It is causing me to seriously rethink my presence on social media, to think hard about the quality of my days, pre and post Facebook. I'm not taking phone calls all day long. I'm taking Facebook messages. Unless I'm hiding, which I spend more and more time doing. Hiding, and not blogging, because I can't. Between feeding the bird and feeding the Facebook requests for assistance, I'm stretched too thin. It's ridiculous.

Feeling much better, May 20, Day 16.

The work that goes into raising just one baby bird can be all-consuming. Baby birds need to be fed often, every half hour from dawn to dark; they need to be kept scrupulously clean, but they also need attention and love. All of which I gladly do, but I'm never really prepared for how labor-intensive it is to raise just one baby bird. And to be asked for help with dozens upon dozens of others, all day long. 

It all makes you kinda tired. 

I realize that I don't know how to deal with being immediately accessible to anyone. Everyone. I've been on Facebook since 2009, and it's been a blessing in so many ways. I've become much closer to people with whom I never would have been able to interact. I can see family baby, niece and nephew pictures, catch up with my dear Aunt Toot in Iowa, and yak with James in Honduras as easily as I can yak with Liam, and that's terrific. I can share all the fantastic things I find; teach and learn too. I can toot my horn and sell books and notecards and puzzles and CD's, publicize speaking engagements and workshops and trips. I wouldn't want to render myself unable to do that. So for me there is no going backward here; there's only figuring out how to manage it all going forward. Maybe I have to morph my presence there, become some kind of entity that doesn't accept private messages. But then there's Jemima. And all those people needing help.

She came to me via Facebook message on May 16 when the irises were in bloom, just a few days before Phoebe came home from school, and I didn't name her right away because I wanted my sweet daughter to have the chance. "Iris!" Phoebe said. "Jemima!" Bill said. So Jemima Iris she was named.

With Phoebe, May 23, Day 19 and three days a fledgling.

They fell right smack in love, and I'm sure Phoebe is her favorite person on the planet, the person who has spent the most time loving her and singing with her and appreciating all the cool little things she does. "You always have a pal for me when I come home, Mai." Shrug. I guess I do. Today, I was sent a playlist of Jemima Iris' favorite songs (she's a huge Ed Sheeran fan, "Barcelona" being her all-time favorite), and chastised for not spending enough time deejaying for a jay. Guilty. 

For a brief window she was portable, but then she started flying. Took her with us to Liam's crew banquet, where she represented for da boids.

The only time I was able to get a photo of her actually gaping was first thing in the morning. After that, she kept her mouth clamped shut, gaping only long enough to take a bit of food, often ducking and weaving to avoid the syringe. I've fed a lot of baby birds, and I would not call her easy to feed. Each one is as different from the other as snowflakes are.

Day 16 at first light. Neeeeyyaaahhhh! Neeeyaaaaahh!

Jays are omnivores. Once she started picking up her own food, which she did around Day 19, my job was to offer her an ever-changing smorgasbord of things from which she could choose. For a couple of weeks, she ate maddeningly tiny bites of everything, flinging away far more than she took in. Her tongue lashes in and out, and she cocks her head, considering the taste of each morsel. She is at once the most careful and discriminating bird I've ever tried to feed. She seems to be evaluating each new food for suitability, over and over. A bit of a surprise; I'd figured she'd gobble everything down like the jays at the feeder do. Not so. She is quite concerned, apparently, that someone might have slipped poison into her food. You never know. This kind lady who has dropped everything to serve her off perfect china plates could be plotting something.

As a  result, I kept supplementing her food with syringe feedings of Mazuri Nestling Formula, beefed up with Repto-Cal (a calcium supplement) until Day 37, which happens to be yesterday. That's a long time to be giving hourly feedings.

But this glorious creature, arrayed in shades of sky and ocean, is the result, and I could not be prouder or happier to have made the journey with Jemima. 

She made free in the house, which was messy but necessary, I thought, for her to develop socially as well as physically. Yep, whitewash spots everywhere. No big deal. I'll get 'em after she's released.

photo by Anne Babcock 

When left in her flight tent in the garage, she did OK, but screamed when she was lonely and hungry. So I'd pop out there, love her up, feed her, cave in and bring her back in the house. First thing in the morning she was too crazy; I couldn't stand having her go through my art materials and pound them to pieces, so I'd let her fly off her yayas in the tent. Then she spent somewhat quieter afternoons inside.

Chet Baker's been an absolute prince with her, suffering her affections. She latched onto him as the closest thing to a blue jay, and followed him, riding on his back, pounding on his toenails, sticking her beak in his ears...the most he'd do is get up and slowly walk away. What a guy, what a gemmun. To this day she hops right up and gets up in his face, quivering her wings and screeching softly at him with wide-open mouth. I think it's an invitation to play, to interact. He is always kind.

I'm writing this on Release Day, June 11, 2017. It seemed to take an eternity for her to be 100% self-feeding, and there were several days when I was sure she wasn't eating enough, but she refused the syringe, so it was what it was. And then finally on Day 37 I left her alone in the flight tent for most of the day, and she cleaned up all the mealworms in her bowl and nearly all her fruit and vegetable mix, and I knew she was ready to go. If I held her any longer she'd lose her edge. The point isn't to make a welfare case of her. The point is to release her.

I made her last tent breakfast this morning. Freshly molted mealworms, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, mulberries, sweet corn and cornbread.

Fed her up good in the tent. 

Bill caught me topping her off with mealworms.

Then I took her out into the yard and showed her the little feeding station I'd set up in the Japanese maple that was once a bonsai. 

And she flew down and helped herself at once. 

 What a thing that was, to be outside with her in the warm sun and fresh breeze, to watch her play in the limbs of a tree I'd started from seed 35 years ago.  You can see her little feeding station behind her.

Chet and I sat out with her all morning. It was so nice out there, listening to her sing. The joy in the bird was palpable. My heart flew with her, because she was no longer captive. And she has all the tools she needs to survive and prosper. Just needed a little help from her friends.

She still goes to mush when Chet walks up.

From the Japanese maple, she flew to the arbor vitaes by the front door. So I made her a little feeding station there as well, with everything she likes and water too.

I put her bathtub in a big planter in case she wanted to bathe. 

And when the afternoon got hot, she did. Oh my. She tried to fly and landed in a heap on the ground. She scuttled under a boxwood to hide, knowing it was bad juju to be soaked and flightless outside. First big lesson on outdoor living!

I scooped her up. For better or worse, I'm still her mama. Brought her inside to dry and preen in the sun, in the safety of the kitchen. She's a work in progress. Aren't we all? 

Dried out, she went right back to pestering Chet Baker.

I want to PLAY WITH YOU. Are you DEEF???

Hm. That's right. You are deef. 

Let Jemima have a look in that ear. 

From there, she went to tussling with my antler back-scratcher.

She got her dose of Ed Sheeran today! For me, this little clip embodies the joy Jemima has brought to our lives. She's a scruffy little angel, sent down to cheer us, to buoy our spirits. I watched her work her magic on exam and life-weary Phoebe, who needed exactly this: a little thing to care for and dote on, one she could love and then release to a bright future.  I'll always be grateful that Jemima Iris landed in our lives just when she did. Whitewash and all.

[Back to Top]