Background Switcher (Hidden)

Leaving Jemima (She's fine!)

Monday, November 27, 2017


I wrote "The Thing About Jemima" in a long morning session, and by the time I finished it I was in sore need of a long hike. I think of the woods trails as my quickest route to deliverance. There's little that can be wrong with me that six miles won't fix. It's good to have a place to go that makes you feel better.  Truth be told, it's probably the walking that saves me as much as the place. If something's bothering you, get moving. By the time you get back, your primitive brain will have decided you've outrun the cave bear. You'll live another day. You'll look forward again.

It was a rare, sunny winter afternoon, and I could see right away that the animals were all coming to me. The white-throated sparrows were peeping and fluttering in the multiflora rose. A beautiful male eastern towhee sounded his "Joreeet?" then hopped back down into the thicket. I know the secret  towhee word, though, and I whistled it softly through my teeth. Seeureet? I whistled.

That got him back out! Huh? What?! Who said the password?

The afternoon sun caught his eye, and it shone like a garnet. He postured and gave me his good side, then switched around. And then he leapt to another sumac branch, and I caught him in flight. Except that he barely opened his wings. "Flying is just assisted leaping," he said. "Watch me."

I did. And I remembered, watching him, that all Jemima had to do was leap, and flutter some, too, and she could get through the forest just fine.

Thank you, Beautiful.  

It occurs to me that the title of this post may cause some alarm, so I rush to reassure you that Jemima's been in the past three days! She's been coming in the morning with a gang of friends, and she's been ignoring her chicken and peanuts, gobbling corn and seed with the ruffians instead. 

 That's her on the left. The one with no primaries.

 Taking a leisurely breakfast with Maybelline (now he's on the left).  These shots taken November 27 around 7:40 AM.

Hi Ma. Don't worry about me. I have my posse. They're pretty sharp. They look out for me.
It's incredibly hard for me to leave home, knowing she's hanging so close by, but I'm leaving for Ecuador tomorrow. And who knows, being Jemima, she could go on another 8 day bender while I'm gone. I'm prostrate with thankfulness that she decided to see me off this morning. Thank you Jemmy, thank you.

 I'll be away for 10 days, which neatly coincides with the week of whitetail gun season that started this morning. Blam! Blam! My least favorite sound, besides the snarl, crack and crash of logging. There's a beauty to that, for me to just leave the country while my friends go under fire. I can't do anything to help them; can't walk in the woods this week, so I might as well go explore some of the highest bird diversity on the planet, on both slopes of the Andes, with a bunch of beloved friends, right? Right!

Liam is on Jemima duty, and he has a full page list with lots YOU MUST's and boldface and !!!!!'s to refer to. Lucky Liam!

Back to Dean's Fork. We were on a walk when Jemima barged in, all blue and white.

Allis Chalmers was looking fine against a pillowy mackerel sky. As the saying goes, we'd be barely 24 hours dry, for sure--it would pour all the next day. 

I peeked into the upper corner of the canopy.
There was the phoebe nest!

The aging woods behind were looking very thin, but the grass still had an emerald sheen.

I kept hearing winter wrens. They sound a lot like song sparrows, but instead of giving one "Chimp!" note, they often pair them. Little rattles and trills give them away as wrens, too. They're hard to see, these far northern migrants. They come down to southern Ohio and it feels like the tropics to them, because they've been messing around the roots of wind-thrown trees in boreal forests all summer long.  I find them all winter long in stream beds among the tangled roots, popping out from under logs for a moment, then disappearing again. 

I took about 20 lousy photos, and then I got some good ones.  Please click on these to see his exquisite patterns.
I played about two seconds of winter wren song on Lang Elliott's BirdTunes, and this little character came boiling up out of the tangled roots to kick my a-s. His tiny tail was cocked straight up, and he was moving it the way Andrew McCutchen twirls his bat when he's thinking about clocking one out over the stands and into the Allegheny River. 

I really love these shots, the glow of sun hitting the forest floor and tumbled fallen logs behind the bird, the smooth Smilax brambles crossing, none of it fazing this little bird who chooses to live in jumbled disarray. 

He sang, and the world buzzed and sang around me, with the wonder of hearing silvery birdsong in gray November.  

I've split this magical walk into three parts, so you'll have something to amuse yourself with while I'm gone.  Next:   Remembering Hannah. 

I'm Having Blue Jay for Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thank you for the overwhelmingly positive and beautiful response to "The Thing About Jemima." I  spend way too much time worrying about reader reaction to this or that revelation that's been bothering me for months or years until I finally up and say something. It was just wonderful to be able to say, "Here's the deal, and here's the kind of reaction I can handle, feeling as I do about it, so please let's stick to that." And to have everyone, to a person, come through with flying colors, writing lovely positive sentiments that are actually helping me through the glory, the wonder, the hope and, let's face it, the pain of it all. 

My Instagram and Facebook friend Denise wrote, 
"Thank you for sharing her plight. I can now pray for her safety."

To which I replied, "Oddly, that makes this near-pagan feel a lot better!"

Denise: "Ha ha! You be you, I'll be me. We both are for Jemima!" 

So thank you for keeping Jem and her anxious foster Ma in your hearts. When I got up November 20, I hadn't seen her for five days. But it was an easier wait than the eight-day Jemima-free marathon I'd lived through before my last series of sightings. The weather this week had been lousy, cold and cloudy, then warm, with torrential rain, then cloudy and cold, and it just didn't feel like blue jay weather to me. And I barely saw any blue jays around the feeders or yard. That didn't keep me from my vigil. I watched. I waited. I got a little writing done. I did not curl into a ball. But mostly, I hung in there and had faith that she'd come back at least to check in. Baby steps, improvement. 

I raised the blinds on the morning of November 20 and saw the red stain of sunrise spreading into a clear blue sky. Ahhhh. I will see my Jemima today, I thought. 

And sure enough, as soon as I put the corn and seed out, jays were bouncing all over the place. But not The Jay. 

So stuffed with cracked corn they look like bad taxidermists' mounts. Look at the leftmost bird. Glurp!

They're not Jemima, but oh they gladden my heart. I'm trying so hard to tell them apart as individuals, but it's really tough when the cast keeps changing.

A chipmunk (one of the scrappers from a previous post) streaks through and startles a jay into a little corvine capriole. Boing! Ha ha!!

Once again, Chippy sends the jittery jay airborne, while a red-bellied woodpecker says, "Ga-aaw-lee! What's up with you two?" Even brazen blue jays never quite get used to small bloodthirsty mammals zooming right under their feet. Nor should they.

Gosh, I look at those immaculate, intact wings, and just sigh. Jemima should be so lucky. But then it occurs to me that if she were that lucky, she might be in Georgia right now. It is what it is, and I am tremendously blessed to still be seeing a bird I released in mid-June, in November!

I tell Liam, "I know Jemima's going to show up this morning. I just have to be patient." The new bunny who is frequenting the feeder area (post the mid-August cleanout by Cindy the Bobcat) is amusing me greatly. This bunny has rather short ears and a very fat bottom, and it has a habit of coming out of the tangle behind the rhubarb, squirting up into the air with friskiness, then running back in. Soon it will be corn-fed and even fatter of bottom. Maybe I'll call it Julie.

So I watched the bunny for awhile.

And then she appears, at 8:53 AM, flying in from Stage Left. I'd know those tatty wings anywhere.

I start dancing around the studio snapping photos and laughing. I'm transformed from my everyday loose bundle of hope and anxiety to something approaching pure joy. I call Liam in and we holler endearments to her through the glass. She doesn't mind. 

What were you ever worried about? I don't understand you and your handwringing. I'm off doing my stuff. You go ahead and do your stuff. We'll get together now and then. That's how it goes.

My wise friend Margarethe, who has raised several corvid species and studies them always, has been sharing her experiences. Nothing like the voice of experience! She advised that Jemima's absences could get longer and longer as she builds independence and social networks.  She imparted this wisdom:

"You are both lucky and terribly exposed to hardship because you live right in Blue Jay territory, so Jemima could stay around. But as a juvenile, she still might have to join a more distant flock and find a new place of her own. Her disappearance could have any kind of reason. You seem to be extremely lucky as a mother. Now your Jay is giving you the experiences of anxiety that many face with their human teens. Open your heart and both joy and pain are inevitable. Lucky you."

Agreed on  my luck as a mother to humans. And agreed on that open heart--how, being open, it's ready to love, and to hurt, too, always. I tell myself, "She's a BIRD." She's a bird. 
How does a bird get so deep into my heart?  

She picks up some corn and flies up to the birch. With a good leap and a lot of flapping, she can get some altitude. Enough to get off the ground and into a tree. Yay for that.

And she appears at her buffet, this glorious stained-glass medley of blue, black and white, and you'd never know there was anything amiss, really, unless you noticed that she has no primaries poking out from under those gaudy tertials. 
She loads up on chicken, swallows some of it, then comes back to stuff her gular pouch full.

Ahh is she not the most beautiful? To think she used to let me kiss the top of that sweet head. 

Full up, she hops to the top of the arbor vitae and exits stage left, toward the back yard. This is a new direction! She flies to an ash tree, hops up to near the top, then launches herself into the clear blue air.

Her flight is lopsided, because she has more feathers on her left wing than her right. Phoebe: "She looks like some kind of crazy falling leaf."

But by God she makes it into the crown of the big pine, one of three that Bill and I planted in the winter of 1992. It's the last pine standing. The other two fell last spring. Jemima needs this tree. I need it, too. Please keep standing, Pine. You're a very useful tree.

She disappears into the needles and I can see the branch shaking as she disgorges and pecks apart the wad of chicken she brought. Her moveable feast.

Full as a tick, she puffs out her feathers and lets the sun warm her belly. She rests for about ten minutes. I'm so proud to see my Jem in the very top of the pine. Altitude is her friend. It's her 
hardest -won treasure. 

When she's done resting, I'm lucky to see her launch back toward the feeders. She uses the altitude she gained to have a really good flutter-glide back into the yard, making a grand entrance as jays love to do. I'm agog and thrilled at this bird's adaptability. At the fact that she can disappear for 5 days, 8 days at a time, then show up fit as a fiddle and twice as fat, to gladden her Ma's heart once more. 
How I would love to know where she's been. How far she goes. And how she does it.

This time, she comes in and finishes her chicken, which had been faithfully refreshed each morning, but lying untouched all week. Then she loads up on dry-roasted peanuts and heads toward the east hill. 

I run to the front window just in time to see her launch off the phone line on her long diagonal flight (the 130' one, but who's counting) to the east hill. She amazes me. The robin is also impressed.

I know I probably won't see her again today. And since Liam and I are heading east for Thanksgiving, I know I won't see her for at least another five days. And then I'm home for two days, then headed to Ecuador for ten days. Am I a nervous wreck about it all? Of course. Do I think she'll survive my leaving? Yep. If she needed my subsidy, she'd be there every day. 

But now I'm writing this post, all aglow with the thrill of having seen her at all. I learn so much from her every time she stops in. 

I turn back to my work and, through the closed windows, I hear the croak of a raven! Ravens are rare vagrants to southeast Ohio, but I've had a real run of sightings in October and November. I think I've seen two different pairs and maybe 3 singles. Oh, bring them on!! When I hear a raven I run out onto the back deck, because I have the best chance of photographing them over our meadow. I'm pretty sure that when we take in the game camera, there will be ravens on it. I don't think it's a coincidence that they inspect that part of the meadow--the meatpile is there! 

Sure enough, I'm incredibly lucky to see a raven, being harrassed by a crow.  And even luckier to get a sharp shot of the action (with willow tree photobomb).

Every time the crow dives close to the raven, the huge bird goes tokatok! It sounds just like someone knocking on a hollow log. A most amazing, loud, sonorous, percussive sound. 

My friend Greg Neise did a little Photoshop magic on my photo to better compare the relative shapes and sizes of crow and raven. Crow: top. Raven: lower bird. Look at the difference in their bills! And the length of that raven's wing! 

Seeing this pair of corvids, right after having such a wonderful session with Jemima, feels to me like a great  blessing, a benediction. A lucky sign.

What better Thanksgiving bounty than three corvids in one yard? And Jemima, well and independent and still, somehow, flying free. Keep her in your heart.

This post is dedicated to my sweet friend Melanie and beautiful Alex
 @myecocentriclife on Instagram. Go give her some love.
Sending it with a chorus of blue jay yells and all the love in the world.

The Morning Stalk

Sunday, November 19, 2017

You never know when you're going to have an extraordinary day. I've learned to watch out for the weepy gray days, the ones trying so hard to be ordinary, to pass without notice. November 17, 2017, was just such a day.

While doing my morning wildlife feeding, I noticed a big dark doe walking, all the way out the meadow. Most people say, "Oh, it's only a doe," as if a doe were somehow less a deer than a buck, but I like does. It's like Patton Oswalt said long ago: "I like porn. Because I can GET porn."

Does are easier to see and far easier to stalk; does are easier to identify from year to year, as they aren't always changing their headgear and going through wild hormonal changes. So I threw on a coat and my boots and headed out to stalk this intriguing animal. 

The first thing I noticed about her was large size. Then, her deep blue color, and her beautifully straight topline. Hmm. 

And then I picked up the brilliant white stockings down the back of her front legs. 

She stopped and stood, rooted, staring back at me, and she was so beautiful I thought she might have to be Jolene. Jolene! Is it you? I couldn't remember if Jolene had a red tail, tipped in black. All these little things matter, all these things remain constant year to year, and I add them up to figure out who is who. 

But I don't waste any time looking at my photos when I'm stalking deer. I'm too busy getting those photos and keeping a low profile. I am happy to figure out who I've got after I upload them, when I can closely study and compare the current photos with my library of photos of known individuals. I hadn't seen Jolene since May, and she was heavily pregnant then. 

As luck and the rut would have it, this doe was not alone for long. Out of the woods to the west came a very large buck!

I immediately dropped behind the tall goldenrod, thankful that my part of the meadow hadn't been mowed.  I dared a few shots, rising up just enough to get the lens on him, then sinking back down. 
From his point of view, there was something small, odd and dark popping up and down in the frost- bleached goldenrod, and he wasn't sure what it was. 

I crawled, holding my camera under my belly, getting closer and staying in cover. I peeped up. The buck was still there, still looking at the spot where he last saw me. 

I stayed down. I wanted him to forget about me and think about sex. Finally he turned and continued parading slowly toward the doe. Fabulous! I took that opportunity to hunch-run a bunch closer, while his attention was diverted.

When his bone-white antlers pierced the darkness of the Virginia pines, I knew I had someone special. I couldn't help but notice his beautiful topline, and the white stockings down the backs of his front legs.

Does a buck follow his sister when they're all grown up? If she's in heat, does he know not to court her? Or is it hers to refuse and outrun him? These are things I wonder, and will likely never know. Surely they know each other by sight and smell, if they were raised together. 
Could poor crooked Ellen have been the outcome of a brother-sister tryst? 
So much to wonder. 

Look at his neck--swollen with muscle, built up by fighting saplings and other bucks. Look at the length of his tines. Eight points. A gorgeous gentleman.

When he turned, I could see a pretty good gouge on his right hind leg, doubtless from another buck's tine. He was moving well, though, keeping up appearances for the doe.

The doe had been watching me all along, and she was unnerved by how close I'd gotten. She rushed toward the buck and he broke into a run.  If you click on the photo you can see her motion ghost behind him. 

She was moving right along, outpacing him.

The eternal chase. You can see how heavy are his neck and forequarters compared to hers. He's ponderous by comparison.

It had been a magical encounter. I love little more than being out in a meadow with deer, having some cover to hide in while I watch them living their graceful, beautiful lives.

Next, we'll figure out who that doe was.

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.

[Back to Top]