The blue jay in my backyard.

I found him lying on the ground in my back yard one summer afternoon. I was about 5, maybe 6. There, under an oak tree, was this little baby blue jay. I knew enough about birds to know that their parents push them out of the nest when they think its time for the babies to fly. I think I learned that in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but no matter, I knew it was true. If the baby bird flew, all was well. If not, well, you get the little fella that was on the ground in front of me.
I’d seen this sort of thing before, a dead animal from time to time in my back yard or maybe in the woods behind my parent’s house where we used to play. Sometimes it was a small frog that my dad had accidentally hit with the lawn mower. A few times we’d found birds, usually sick or already dead. One time, we could tell that the bird had been killed by a tick that had swollen up with the bird’s blood. I guess that’s what killed the bird. Even now, after all these years, when I think back, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. We had never heard of West Nile disease, or even feared anything like that. Rabies, yes, but even then, that was the stuff of science fiction. To us, back then, there was no fear, only curiosity. I hardly remember what it was like when life was that simple. When did things get so complicated?
This bird was different than the others, this one wasn’t dead. He was hurt, very scared, and based on the volume and frequency of his piercing screams, very alive. It looked to me like his wing was broken. I had no idea what to do, but figured he needed some shelter, and some food. Made sense to me; I knew that’s what I would want if I was in his predicament. I got a cardboard box and rigged a perch by jamming a stick through the side of the box. I grabbed an old diving mask: the plastic kind you get from the 5-and-Dime, and hung it from the perch. I packed that full of grass, some dirt, and some small sticks. I figured that he ought to get used to not sleeping on the ground. It was only 6 inches from the bottom of the box, but still, it was off the ground. I lined the rest of the box with leaves, grass, and sticks. This way it would smell like home.
I talked my Mom and Dad into letting me try to nurse him back to health, even though they figured he wouldn’t last long. The odds were heavily stacked against him. It was summer, so I took care of him every day. I named him Danny, for no other reason than it seemed to fit. I fed him chopped meat, because it was the closest thing to worms that I could come up with. He didn’t seem to object, and scarfed down the stuff pretty good. I gave him water with a little eye-dropper. I tried to feed him early in the morning, because of the saying, about the early bird catching the worm. Did I really learn so many things from cartoons?
I really took to this bird, and he seemed to lose his fear of me pretty quickly. He even perked up and started to look like he wanted to eat when I came to check on him. He did that thing that baby birds do, turning his head up and opening his mouth. Chirping pretty loudly. I’d like to say we became friends. To me, he seemed like a misfit, or an outcast, which is how I generally viewed myself, and still do. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, and Danny was surely that.
In the afternoons, I’d put Danny in the palm of my hands and hold him up as high as I could. Then I’d whoosh my hands down pretty quick so as to make him feel like he was falling, but not that he actually would. I don’t know why, but it just seemed to be the right thing to do. Natural. He didn’t object, and as he got stronger, and his wing seemed to start healing, he would spread out his wings and kind of flap them as he fell down. We did this, he and I, our afternoon dance, every day. We had an unspoken communication between us, a bond, an understanding. He trusted me more, and I knew that every day was a day closer to him flying away. As much as I wanted to keep him, I knew he was meant to be free.
One afternoon I held Danny high, same as I’d done so many other times, except this time he didn’t follow my hands in their rush toward the ground. Danny spread out his wings, and tentatively at first, then ever stronger, he started to fly. Hew flew up to a branch in the same oak tree from which he’d fallen those few weeks ago. It could have been my imagination, but I’d swear he stopped to look at me. I nodded and smiled, and he flew away into the blue summer sky.
I didn’t know at the time if what I felt was sadness or happiness because it was all jumbled up inside. I did know that I would miss that bird. I think that was the first time that I felt I could actually make a difference in the world. It wasn’t particularly profound, nursing one sick bird back to health. And, I suppose it pales in comparison to other kid’s trophies and awards, but it’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget watching that bird fly free, against all odds, and how proud I was to be a part of that.
Thinking back, it really cost me very little effort to try to give back a life to a little bird. No, that’s arrogance to think I could give back what was not mine in the first place. I mean it cost so little to help that bird get back the life he was given. For something that cost me so little, I certainly gained so much. It’s true that nature is survival of the fittest. Natural selection. But I think that in order to claim the title, the winner has to be able to show compassion, to be able to give to those less fortunate. If we don’t, if we can’t show compassion, if we can’t participate, if we can’t give as much as we take in the cycle of life, then we will have an insurmountable weakness that will doom us all.


© Steven R. Smith 


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