This past week has been a series of crazy-magic days, full of animals, deadening heat, confusion, and wonder. It began with a fledgling jay the neighbors brought me. He was a fat, sassy thing, ready to take on the world, but he had launched from a nest beneath which sat two equally fat and sassy cats, who were ready to take on a small bird buffet.
Vivian brought him to my door in a Kleenex box, saying, “He’ll never make it through the night with my two cats on guard. So far, the other big jays are dive-bombing the cats and kids, but I know the cats will win out. You can’t believe the racket in my yard right now.”
In the bottom of the shoe box a fluffy blue jay sat clutching a small twig in a death-grip. I brought the box in the house, and put my hand in. He never made a move when I lifted him into my hand, and no sound came out of that wide baby beak, but he hung onto the twig like a life preserver.
With my free hand, I plopped a handful of dry dog food into a coffee cup and poured in a cup of hot water. It’s a good short-term general diet for a fledgling bird. While it was soaking, I covered the bottom of my soft-sided cat carrier with paper towels, a small branch, and a small scrap of old blanket. When I set the jay inside, he skittered over to the blanket, and hunkered down silently.
The room I use for my wildlife care is a small guest room with a southwest facing window. Outside, azalea bushes rise up to the window’s ledge, and birds visit the outside feeder there all day. The room is quiet, often filled with filtered sunlight, and always host to the sound of birds and squirrels singing and quarreling outside.
When the cup of dog food was soft, I held a small piece in my hand and tried to see if I could get the fledgling to gap open his big mouth for me. Birds just out of the nest will often no longer open wide for anyone but their real mothers, and this fellow was no exception.
He huddled in the carrier with his mouth closed like a trap door. So I went on to Plan B. Sometimes, if you make a fast movement with your fingers toward the beak, you can get a reluctant baby bird to open wide as a defense or fear mechanism. If your ploy works, you need to be really quick with your fingers, and stuff the food down the bird’s throat before it knows what’s happening. If you are very lucky, the bird will react with a startled gulp, and be a step closer toward understanding that food will be coming from a different source from now on.
My fingers made a fast move toward the jay’s beak and he reacted, all right. He let out a scream that rattled the windows. My shaking fingers poked a bite of food down that caterwauling yaw. I expected—or hoped for—that open, defensive mouth. I wasn’t expecting the scream. He paused long enough to gulp down the food, and then went right back into the wall-rattling, indignant bellows. So I filled my fingers again, and stuffed another mouthful of food down his throat, and another and another. “Gulp—aggghhhh!—gulp—-aggghhhh!—gulp—gurrrgle—urp.” And silence.
The room became peaceful again. Sunlight filtered in softly. If you could put music to this moment, it would have been a harp serenade. The jay hoisted his tale and blasted a wad of wet poop onto the paper toweling, shook out his feathers and—honest—it looked like he burped.
An hour later, just at sunset, I came back to the jay’s room to feed him one more time before I covered his carrier for the night. Same scenario: My fingers—much screaming—gulp—more screaming—gulp—quiet—poop rocket-launching across the cage. When the screaming started, the theme in the room became heavy metal. When I stepped outside the room into the silence that followed the calamity, it was harps and New Age playing in my head.
I marvel at this—the energetic shift as one crosses the portal from one activity to the next, from one mindset to the next, from one relationship to the next. Music helps me explain the phenomenon: Imagine surfing radio stations while driving. It all comes at you instantly—the loud ads, the classical music, a bellowing country western crooner, Rush Limbaugh, news shows, oldies—you keep surfing until you find the music that matches (or helps to make) your mood. In life, our mood is often made for us as we face one situation after another. Some we choose, others fate chooses for us. When we can’t change the station, we just dance to whatever music is in our faces.
The next day, I woke up to windows steaming with condensation. Inside, we were a cool 73 degrees. Outside, the thermometer was already inching up to 90, with humidity at 87 percent. A heat warning was in the forecast for the next three days.
The roly-poly jay was as belligerent as ever, but we got into a fine rhythm with the screams and the food. I had a busy day ahead. WildCare had a couple of fledgling jays on hand, and I wanted to get my little guy into that group. Later that afternoon, despite the heat, we were scheduled for a raccoon release. Eight youngsters were ready to go wild, and the plan was to release them into the woods behind our house. Quickly, I packed up the jay and drove off to the Center. I left the little guy bellowing with two other screamers just like him. Boy, do jays have a set of lungs on them.
I walk the woods behind our house often, so I know very well what they are like in the summer. The hollows are cauldrons of still air and heat. Chiggers and ticks are the welcoming committee. Poison ivy and oak pat you happily on the arms and legs as you walk past. When the temperature and humidity go sky high, it’s no place for a happy stroll. But the raccoons were READY, and the hollows in any weather are a raccoon Eden.
That afternoon, I got a call from WildCare. “The raccoons and helpers are on their way. And they’re bringing you something else: We got in a baby hummingbird today. She needs your help.”
Do you ever have moments when it is a supreme challenge to shift from one mental task to another? I have them all the time. I can’t multi-task anymore. Rather, I serial-task and I do it badly. I can manage one idea at a time, and carry none to completion easily. You know how it goes: You plan to go upstairs to get the car keys and go to the store, but at the top of the stairs is a laundry pile, so you carry it back downstairs and bring it to the laundry room, where you realize the cat box needs changing. You pick up the cat box and go out the back door, where you see that the pond could use a topping off, so you set down the cat box and turn on the hose and watch frogs for twenty minutes. If you ever make it to the store that day, it is a miracle.
So, picture me in Raccoon mode: braced for sweaty jungle hike, grabbing up water bottles and bandanas for mopping up the sweat. See me shoving my feet into hiking shoes, and grabbing my backpack from the wall hook downstairs. The musical signature playing in the background would be fast-moving bluegrass. Perhaps Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Then the phone rings. A baby hummingbird will be coming.
I’ve had no hummingbird rescues yet this year. My mind goes blank, and then slips into hummingbird mode. Off goes the pack. Off with the hiking shoes, into the rehab room to look for my hummingbird notes. I pass through a mental portal into a completely different mindset. Dulcimer music, chimes, and panpipes play in the background of my head. Think, Susan. Think. Okay, feeders? Heating pad? Where is the hummingbird nectar? Which nectar do I use? Slow down.
Baby hummers need to be fed about every fifteen to twenty minutes. How can I possibly care for the hummingbird and participate in the raccoon release at the same time? Now there are stereo orchestras going off in my head: flutes in one ear, banjos in the other. I am dancing between portals, lurching from hummingbird orchestra to coon orchestra and back again.
I’m holding a syringe of warm nectar in my hands when Carter calls out, “the raccoons are here.” Suddenly, someone is standing at my door with a tiny mesh bat carrier holding a hummingbird. That’s it. My serial-task brain implodes. Flute and banjo are searching for a duet. My hand reaches for the mesh carrier. Inside is a young hummer just out of the nest. Her body is round and fully feathered, but her short tail and shortened beak tell me that she is only about 21 days old. Banjo music fades out as I cross the energetic portal into hummingbird land. Raccoons and raccoon helpers will just have to play their own tune for a moment.
The hummingbird is older than I had speculated. Good. I place her in the enclosure I’d already prepared for her, and set a small hummingbird feeder in front of her nose. Glory be, she pokes her little beak right in and starts drinking. I’m free to guide the raccoon team into the forest. Harps fade. Banjos take over.
Off into the forest we go, lugging along water bottles, a pack full of raccoon treats, and each of us with a carrier or two of raccoon at our sides. Were I walking alone into this forest in this heat, the musical signature would be quite different—possibly a funeral dirge. But the little raccoons poke their noses and hands out the front of the carrier, and remind us of why we are here. Their energy trumps the oppressiveness of the forest at three in the afternoon on a killer hot day. The banjo and mandolin music in my heart carries my feet along swiftly and happily to our release site at a granite overhang along a rippling stream.
When we open the carrier doors, the raccoons are quick to exit. The heat and confinement in the plastic carriers probably encouraged them. There is nothing quite like a raccoon release event. To see the youngsters step out of confinement and into the wild for the very first time is pure, blessed magic. Three hurried out and followed each other down a small draw to an ancient hickory tree. They circled the tree, and wrapped their arms around its thick-creased bark as though embracing an old friend. In only a moment, they were twenty feet up into the boughs of the hickory, hanging on like seasoned loggers.
Back by the granite alcove, the other raccoons left their carriers, looking this way and that, black noses sniffing loudly. Each found its own spot of water and stopped suddenly as if hypnotized. Each bent down while gazing forward in a trancelike state and let soft, curious hands make patty-paws in the cool water.
When we headed back up the hollow, not one coon waved goodbye nor so much as cast a glance our way. Perfect. The banjo music faded behind me, and silence walked with me back up to the house. The coon team drove off, leaving me standing sopping wet with sweat in the driveway. When I opened our front door, I was struck in the face with a blast of cool, welcomed air-conditioned luxury. I put all raccoon thoughts behind me and opened the door to the hummingbird room. Can anyone look at a hummingbird and not feel celestial? And a baby hummingbird? Let the angel chorus begin!
The little ruby throated hummer was settling in just fine. I’d release her as soon as she learned to hover in front of her feeder, and had proved to me that she knew what flowers and fruit flies were for.
The phone rang, pulling me away from heaven. “Susan? This is Beverly. Pepper’s ‘mom.’ Are you ready for your possum baby to come back? We leave for vacation on Friday!”
Oh, yes—more than ready! In my mind’s eye, I saw Pepper’s long possum nose and delicate paws. My heart searched for the right music, the right tune. Didgeridoo, I think.
What are some of your theme tunes these days?
Thank you, Susan, for a joyous ride into the woods with the raccoons, feeling like in a movie with the sounds of blue grass urging us on. Wild! This has been an adventure reading about your current fosterlings, all greatly needed and much appreciated. It sounds like you are having fun in the heat!
Yes, Kathey—I’m making memories this summer!
Theme tunes these days: Johnny Cash for the melancholy, ZZ Topp for the bad boy, and Leonard Cohen for the poetry.