The Blue Jay

On the porch in the morning: looking north, into woods and a view of the path dropping over the bank; the northwest corner opening to the pale blue of the Bay, in morning light, a scattering of small oaks and pines and a spindly hemlock silhouetted against it.

Sally and I are sitting here with our coffee when there’s a twang and a thump and a blue jay falls out of the sky. He’s lying on the ground below the feeder, he must have flown right into it. We watch, hoping he’ll get up. He’s on his back, rustles his wings for half a minute; I see his legs scramble, like pedaling a bike, then nothing. He goes limp.

“Oh no,” I say, because I’m pretty sure we just watched the blue jay die.

“Maybe we should turn him over,” Sally says, “in case he’s still alive.”

There seems little hope of this, but not knowing much of bird concussion, we decide to do it. I put on some gloves and walk over carefully, trying to be quiet in case he wakes up. I squat down and scoop the blue jay into my hand.

His head lolls. His eyes are just slits—emphatic as cartoon x’s. I shift him onto his belly—noticing the buff gray of his chest—and a little onto his side, trying to rest his rag-doll head on the duff of pine needles. I notice too that the feathers round his neck are not so much blue as a beautiful, rich lavender. His tail feathers, striped with black, are a piercing hue, like certain wildflowers or the apex of a clear summer sky.

This is the sad beauty of dead birds: lifeless, I am able to study them, up close. The most famous birder of them all, John James Audubon, did this, often killing them himself for the purpose. His journals record that at times he shot scores of them to execute a single portrait. Before photography, I suppose this seemed a necessity. Thankfully our ideas, and our technology, have changed, and anyway, I am not trying to paint a likeness. I will take my opportunities as they come, mournful as they are.

Some hours later I put the gloves back on and pick up the jay again. He is most certainly dead; his small body has already begun to stiffen. I turn him over in my hands, admiring once again the colors: that smoky lavender on his back, the contrasting hues of his striped wings and tail, bright sky blue and a dusky, velvety denim, edged with cream-colored scallops. I notice the crisp sharpness of his glossy black beak, the curled strength of his talons.

I thought I would bury him—but instead I walk a little deeper into the woods and, spying a small open spot on higher ground, I take him there. Before I set him down I gently fan out one wing, admiring the contours and delicate strength of the bones and feathers that lifted him into the sky. But no more. It seems so inexplicable, that a few hours ago his bright colors were flashing through the trees. How can it be?

As I turn him back over to put him down a piece of pale fluff drops from him and floats to the ground. I lay the blue jay there on the mound and walk away. Death is still the greatest of mysteries, even when expressed through the being of a bird.

Later I think again of Audubon, and the collectors and naturalists that came after him. As a child I was fascinated with the sheer number of creatures on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Now they tell a slightly different story. Before our ideas advanced we thought it a proud and scientific endeavor, to fill museums with the dead, carefully stuffed and mounted.

Worse, we treated entire species as if they were expendable, whether for sport or profit. Audubon painted the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, using freshly killed birds for models. By the dawn of the 20th century they were all extinct. The slaughter of passenger pigeons is particularly well documented in all its gruesome detail: not only guns but nets, clubs, pincers, poisonous gas and fire (to burn entire groves of trees the birds nested in) were used. The numbers are staggering: in one year, 1878, a three-man team in Petoskey, Michigan was reported to have killed over 50,000 birds.

I feel some responsibility for the blue jay’s death; we hung the feeder there between the trees, an unnatural object that somehow he did not see. Having held his delicate body in my hands, admired the colors that outdo even our most brilliant fabrics and the strong wings that accomplish flight—something we can only dream of, I can’t comprehend what it would be like to preside over a mass extinction.

Blue jays are not an endangered or even a threatened species, and I think this sad accident is a fluke. But even so I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not off the hook, entirely. What abundance do we take for granted, what are we ignoring now that will become devastatingly apparent in decades or centuries to come? Chemicals, backhoes, chainsaws, oil spills, our insatiable desire for more and bigger—cannot these be even more disastrous than guns and nets? What terrible event will we stand beside and have to say: “We did this”?

I wonder.

Nancy Squires, September 2016

Sources

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, Greenberg, Joel, Bloomsbury USA 2014.

Audubon’s Elephant: America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of The Birds of America, Hart-Davis, Duff, Henry Holt & Co. 2004.

 

Not So Alone in the Dark

Coming out of a complicated dream involving a large cast of friends, group dynamics and a logistical problem (I left my car parked miles away and forgot—now how will I get back?), I wake to a clear morning, fresh, cool air coming in the window, the sound of birds. I lift my head to look through the doorway and out the picture window, see a pale blush on the horizon over silver-blue water. I’m filled with relief—it was only a dream, I’m not up the creek without a ride, after all. It’s only then that I remember the dragonfly.

***

In bed reading the night before, night had fallen, dark solidified while I lay propped on the pillows. A Walk in the Woods—I’d finished the chapter where Bill Bryson thinks he’s staring down a bear, in the dark. Is it any wonder I jumped when something thudded against the glass of the living-room window?

But I’ve heard this sound before—at night, with the lights on, moths start to gather around the cottage, some of them large. If you’re quiet as I was, reading, their soft bodies bumping the glass can be quite loud, and if not ghostly, at least, atmospheric.

I read on. Suddenly there was a clatter and scuffle at the screen right beside me, behind the lamp. Sally’s always telling me not to leave that window open with the light on because sometimes tiny gnats get through the screen. This came to me as the scrambling, banging sound repeated, so loud that I half wondered if a crazed chipmunk was launching itself at the window.

I got up, pulled aside the curtain and saw in the lamplight near the lower edge of the screen a greenish-looking, faceted head, on a long body, like some kind of cartoon alien—then it vanished. A dragonfly.

I shut the window to the smallest of cracks and got back in bed, resumed reading. As Bryson and Katz made their way through Shenandoah and on, the dragonfly returned at intervals, attacking the screen with a ferocity befitting its name, feeding on the tiny bugs attracted by my light. Eventually, despite the noise, I got drowsy. The next chapter could wait—this was, after all, my second time through the book. I closed it, put it on the dresser and turned out the light.

But as I prepared to row off to dreamland I looked out the doorway through the front window and even without my glasses I could see sparks, like diamonds glittering up high in the trees. The sky having finally cleared, the stars were out. I had to go look.

I slipped on my fleece shirt and in hiking boots and pajamas I made my way down to the beach. Switching off my headlamp I looked up, and around. The stars were most definitely, gloriously, out. The Big Dipper shone in the black sky brighter than a neon sign over a parking lot. In fact I could see all of Ursa Major, and everywhere I looked there were stars—except at the western horizon where I guessed there must be a low bank of cloud. I spotted Cassiopeia, just over the treetops behind me, and a group of brilliant stars to the south looked like part of some constellation I don’t know, I can only identify a few. Looking way up overhead, bending slightly backwards, I saw the hazy stream of the Milky Way, a sinuous cloud, a river of stars.

The breeze was strong on the beach, and after a bit I felt cool and ready to sleep. I switched on my headlamp and went back up the stairs. I was already at the back door when I thought of the dragonfly who’d been pounding at my window. I stepped over to look, and there it was, resting on the screen: nearly four inches long, gleaming iridescent green and turquoise under my headlamp like it was encrusted with jewels. I touched its body ever so gently and it shifted slightly but remained planted, feet holding firmly to the screen.

I left it there, surrounded by midges. With the light out it was quiet and I fell to sleep, attended by a flying dragon, a huge bear plodding through the sky, and fires beyond number sparkling overhead. Sometimes I think it is too bad, that summer nights come so late and pass while I’m asleep.

Nancy Squires, August 2016