Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, April 27, 2020

The completely made up story of Frederick the Nighthawk and Sneakers the Blue Jay

In 1992, at the height of my bird rehabilitation career, I had two education birds: a Common Nighthawk named Fred and a Blue Jay named Sneakers. I loved them both, but their personalities couldn't have been more opposite. They inspired the following story, which is of course entirely fictitious. (You can listen to the story on the podcast here.)

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Once upon a time, a serious young nighthawk named Frederick was hatched on a patch of bare ground not far from a massive oak tree. One morning, a spunky little Blue Jay named Sneakers fledged from his nest in the oak. He hopped to the ground near the fuzzy nighthawk, who was sitting thoughtfully in a patch of sunshine.

"My dad's bigger than your dad," boasted Sneakers.

"I believe you are partially correct in that assertion. Paternal progenitors of your species average about 12 inches in length, while in my species average only 9 or 10 inches. But adults of my species have a much larger wingspan: 24 inches compared with your species' 17."

Sneakers had never heard anyone talk so quietly and so numerically before. It made him uncomfortable and angry.

"My mom can whip your mom any day."

"That may well be true, if your mother is ill-bred enough to equate combativeness with strength of character." 

Sneakers didn't have the foggiest idea what the nighthawk was talking about, so he said, "One time my dad pulled a Great Horned Owl's tail feather right out of its skin." 

"My parents believe that discretion is the greater part of valor. My father has endured for a full decade now, surviving ten annual flights to and from Brazil. I believe individuals of your species have a much shorter life expectancy." 

The nighthawk was tired of talking to an ignorant jay, so he waddled about, turning his back on the little fledgling. Sneakers flitted over to face him again. 

"My name's Sneakers. What's yours?"

But the nighthawk turned about face again. Sneakers's feelings were hurt, so he tweaked the nighthawk's tail. One of the nighthawk's tail feathers suddenly gave out, and Sneakers, still tugging, fell head over heels backward. A drop of bright red blood marked the spot where the feather was pulled out. The nighthawk turned to face the jay.

"My name is Frederick," he said imperturbably. "But I have no interest in developing an acquaintance with someone as rude and thoughtless as you." He turned his back on Sneakers and fluffed out his feathers.

Sneakers was confused and sad and tuckered out after his first adventure away from the nest. He squawked loudly, and his mother came and led him back to the big oak.

As the summer went on, Sneakers learned the raucous and fun-loving ways of the Blue Jay. Frederick grew adept at catching moths in the evening sky, and spent his days in quiet contemplation. Although Sneakers never spoke to Frederick after that first awkward meeting, he often eyed him from the branches of the oak.

Just after dawn one late July morning, as Sneakers flew back to his tree with six raspberries in his throat pouch, something brownish red caught his eye. It was a fox, crouching low in a patch of weeds, inches from Frederick. "Look out!" yelled Sneakers. Frederick darted up in the air just as the fox sprang, narrowly escaping the predator's salivating jaws. As the fox slunk away, Frederick lighted on a horizontal limb of the oak and resumed his nap.

"You might say 'thank you,'" chided Sneakers. Frederick opened his eyes a moment and studied the Blue Jay placidly. Then he fluffed out his feathers and went back to sleep.

One August evening at twilight, just after Sneakers had retired to his branch in the oak, Frederick caught sight of a Great Horned Owl alighting on a branch above the Blue Jay and looking down on him. Great Horned Owls are fast and silent, but their long, broad wings don't maneuver well. Frederick darted through the branches, stomping his tiny feet on Sneakers's head.

"What the heck?!" yelled the sleepy jay as he tumbled through a mass of twigs and branches. He suddenly sensed the owl's presence and crouched as its shadow passed overhead. Then he spotted Frederick snatching a huge sphinx moth in midair.

"Did you really save me?" Sneakers asked in shock.

"It seemed the wisest and kindest course of action under the circumstances," said Frederick quietly. "Remember, you once saved my life."

"I wish we could be friends," said Sneakers.

"Caprimulgids and corvids are never friends," said Frederick wisely, but with a glint of longing in his own eyes. "Anyway, it is now time for me to follow my parents down our ancestral pathway to Brazil. I shudder to think what your winters must be like. You be careful out there."

"You, too," said Sneakers with feeling, wondering what it would be like to fly thousands of miles from home and have to learn to speak Portuguese.

The little nighthawk and the little Blue Jay saw each other every summer after that. They occasionally nodded to each other in passing, but they never again saved one another's lives, and never became friends in the normal fashion. Being neighbors was good enough.

Baby Blue Jay