Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Laura's Best Bird EVER! Chapter 3. Ludwig the Blue Jay

(Some of this is reworked from earlier blog posts for my Best Bird EVER series.)
Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

In 1979, when I was birding in a park in Madison, Wisconsin, with my dear friend Ken Wood, we came upon a hilarious sight: a Blue Jay fledgling who was quite literally playing on the playground slide. He’d hop up to the bottom and then flutter as hard as he could to work his way up the slippery slope. He never got even halfway up before gravity took over; he’d make a quick about-face and flap his little wings as hard as he could, sliding down to the bottom; he’d stay aloft for a second or two before dropping to the dirt below. Then he’d start up the slide all over again. It was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. Ken took photos of the little jay, and then we went home.

An hour or so later I started growing uneasy. I vaguely remembered seeing adult Blue Jays flying back and forth overhead, but they completely ignored the fledgling even when Ken and I picked it up for a couple of photos. So Russ and I went back to the park just in time to discover it in the mouth of a golden retriever. Fortunately, it must have been a well-trained hunting dog because it held the little bird gently, and when I reached out to take it, the dog handed it right over! There were a few drops of blood and a good supply of saliva on the little guy, but otherwise he seemed fine.

I’d noticed two peculiar things—two jays flew over, completely ignoring the situation, and the baby didn’t make a sound. I surmised that his parents weren't paying attention to him, and had perhaps outright abandoned him, because parent Blue Jays find and recognize their chicks in part by voice. One that didn't make a peep in the mouth of a dog was probably defective from an adult Blue Jay's perspective. 

From the moment that little bird's eyes met mine, an electrical surge seemed to go through me, sparking a love affair. As captivating as Blue Jays are to my eyes, it turns out they’re even better at capturing my heart.

Riding home, the beautiful little jay snuggled into my hands and looked at me with bright, trusting eyes; I was scared to death of screwing up. So the first thing I did when I got home was to call a friend of mine who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He’d raised a baby magpie many years before, and was a treasure trove of valuable information about diet and care. I was a teacher and still had a few days of school to go, so I brought the bird with me every day, carrying him in a shoebox on the bus. I fed him every 15 minutes, whether I was in the middle of a lesson or at recess. The kids in my classes were as charmed as I, and that meant that 60 more people were invested in his survival, too.

He never made any sounds at all for the first three or four weeks. I thought he must be deaf so I named him Ludwig. But on the last day of school, he proved beyond a doubt that he could hear perfectly well. I brought home a box with all my desk stuff, including an orange bell from Russ’s and my Parker Brothers’ Pit game that I rang when I wanted the kids to settle down—the kind of bell with a button on top.

Pit, the Parker Brothers game

As I was putting things away in our apartment, Ludwig looked curiously at it, so I pressed the button and it rang out. He instantly hopped up and pushed the button with his beak, but he was very little, so his breast pressed against the bell, dampening the sound. When he stepped back, I rang the bell again and his crest popped up and he hopped up to try it again, but again the sound was dull. I showed him how it worked a few more times, but then Russ and I went to another room to watch TV. Maybe 20 minutes or a half hour later, we heard a clear “Ding!” A few seconds later, we heard another “Ding!” and then a “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” I went running in to see Ludwig hitting the button over and over as he hovered, wings beating furiously, above it. He seemed very pleased with himself, and especially pleased that we had witnessed his accomplishment. After that, he pretty much lost interest in the bell. I kept it on the table, and every now and then he’d notice it and fly up to ring it once or twice, but he had moved onward and upward.

Bell from Pit, the Parker Brothers game

There are no evolutionary advantages whatsoever conferred on a bird for mastering bell ringing. But curiosity, tenaciousness, figuring out cause and effect, and keen observational skills are excellent qualities for an opportunistic omnivore, be it a Blue Jay or a human being. The longer and more closely that I observed Ludwig, the more I grew to understand that Blue Jays exemplify the very best of what an intelligent, sociable species can be.

Ludwig thrived. But being raised by a human instead of a Blue Jay family meant his education was different from what a normal Blue Jay would have. The first time Ludwig took a bath in my kitchen sink, he soaked himself so thoroughly that each flight feather became a sodden, stringy, heavy mess. He hopped up to the edge of the sink with no problems, but when he tried to fly across the room to the table, he dropped to the floor like a rock.  I picked him up on my finger and he stayed put while drying off. It took half an hour of preening to get his feathers back into flying condition.

I had learned that there was no way I’d qualify for a permit to keep him permanently, so right when he was starting to take short flights, I started taking him outdoors so he could learn some of the skills he’d need to become independent. It was of course terrifying the first time I set him on a bush—what if he flew off and I never saw him again? How would he survive? I realized that parent birds are way, way better at keeping track of their fledglings, and are ever so much more able to reach them in high trees, than I could possibly be. Fortunately, fledglings also keep track of their parents, and the first week or so, Ludwig never strayed far from me. When I couldn’t stay out with him, he’d happily come inside with me, at least at first. As he got more independent, especially after he discovered mulberries in the back of the yard and delectable fruits further afield in the neighborhood, sometimes he didn’t want to come in with me. I was more and more feeling like Samantha on the show “Bewitched,” when she’d call, “Mother! Mother!” into the bushes, making her neighbors think she was crazy. Calling “Ludwig!” seemed even more bizarre. Sometimes I’d be forced to leave him out—when he was ready to come in, he’d look through our apartment windows until he saw us and peck at the glass to catch our attention. He was starting, at long last, to make Blue Jay vocalizations. Whenever he wanted me, he’d make a squawk that sounded like “Ma! Ma!”

One time a huge storm blew in while Ludwig was outside. As the ominously dark clouds built up, I searched and called, but he didn’t come. When the deluge descended, I gave up and went inside. Every lightning bolt and blast of thunder made me more anxious. When the rain finally stopped, I ran out and called for him. I couldn’t find him in my own yard or nearby, so I hopped on my bike and started riding through the neighborhood, calling his name. Finally, a few blocks away I found him, sitting on a telephone line directly above a bus stop, feathers so plastered against his body that he didn’t look anything like a blue jay—just a gray, sodden mass squawking “Ma! Ma!” A dozen or so people were waiting for the bus as I pulled my bike to a stop. That was back when I still clung to a shred of a sense of dignity, and felt my face grow hot as I called, “C’mon down, Ludwig!” He dropped like a rock, fortunately onto the slim patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. He hopped up to me yelling, “Ma! Ma!” as the people stared and laughed.

Thanks to this spunky little Blue Jay, my sense of dignity slowly dissolved. That radar system so desperately focused on any sign of disapproval or ridicule makes it hard for people to follow their own lights. Some of us get so wrapped up in self-consciousness that we forget that absurdities creep into everybody’s life. We need to outgrow it to become genuine human beings, which intriguingly, means being able to live more like Blue Jays. That was one of the important lessons I took from those magical days with Ludwig.

One morning I found a bright red little rubber-band-powered propeller in my Rice Krispies. I wound it up, and up shot the propeller. Ludwig was spellbound as it floated through the air; suddenly he took off after it, grabbing it in midair. I called, and he brought it to me. That’s how we learned to play a fun game of fetch. It was even more fun outdoors without walls or ceiling to get in the way. Over and over I’d shoot it up and he’d race after it and bring it back. One time it landed on our apartment building’s slanted roof. He flew up to retrieve it, but the moment he landed on the hot roof tiles, he keeled over on his side. His crest went up, one wing and his tail spread out, his beak opened, and he froze. I thought he was having a seizure. When I called, he didn’t move. In a panic, I rushed to the basement where our landlord kept a ladder, lugged it out, and climbed up to the roof. I’m scared of heights, but didn’t even think of that as I rushed toward him. But as my hand reached out to grasp him, he shook his head, stood up, grabbed the propeller, and flew onto my shoulder as if asking what was up?

That was the first I learned about sunning. Many birds get into this posture on hot, sunny days. This innate behavior raises the temperature of a bird’s skin and feathers, and is possibly done in order to banish some parasites. Over the years I’ve seen many birds sun bathing, but this first time, before I understood it, I was petrified thinking Ludwig was dying.

Ludwig had a collection of toys that he stored in a little ceramic cup. I gave him some shiny buttons, a rubber band, that Rice Krispies propeller, and an old ring. Now and then he’d fly to the cup and take out his treasures one by one, arranging them in a line, and then put them all back into the cup. Once in a while, he’d fly off with one and hide it somewhere. Once he wedged a button in the crevice between the window frame and the sash, and we had to work it out with a knife before we could open the window.

One day I gave Ludwig a few sunflower seeds. He tucked them away with his other toys, not realizing they were food. A few days later I bit one open and ate the seed in front of him, then cracked open another and gave him the seed. He was thrilled! Years later, when we first gave our children Starburst candy, they loved how each piece came in a colorful wrapper—after that they always called Starburst “present candy” because of the wrapping. That reminded me of how Ludwig loved sunflower seeds for the packaging as much as for the seed magically hidden inside.

A family of Blue Jays lived somewhere near us, and whenever Ludwig found himself on their territory, the adults would chase him off, sometimes following him a ways. He quickly discovered that they were afraid of me, and occasionally actually seemed to taunt them to get them to chase him into our yard, where he’d alight on my head and turn to face them defiantly. As their babies grew more independent, the adults grew more tolerant of Ludwig.

By summer’s end, he was spending most nights outside and only once or twice a day coming into our yard.The last day I saw him was the last day of summer vacation. Through that fall and winter, whenever I saw a Blue Jay, I wondered if it could be Ludwig.

When Russ and I were in Chicago during spring vacation, a warm breeze floated into Madison. Our next-door neighbor was out sunning herself when she spotted a Blue Jay alight on each of our apartment windows, peeking in and tapping on the glass. He landed on her lawn chair and studied her a bit, and then tried the windows once more, and finally flew off. I felt so sad when she told me I’d missed him, but so joyful to know that he’d survived the winter. He had a whole rich life ahead of him. Four decades later, I still feel a quiet joy knowing that even as he was leading his life as a proper Blue Jay should do, he kept in his mind a little memory of me. Ludwig was the Best Bird EVER!