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”?
Nancy Squires, September 2016
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.