Baby Blues

Fledgling blue jays begging Dad to make a pizza run [photo: christian lanctot, ccl]


Identifying songbirds by their calls is not my forte.

Sure, I can distinguish most common backyard residents with distinctive voices, including mourning doves (Coo…. coo, coo), Carolina chickadees (Fee-bee-fee-bay or chickadee-dee-dee), American robins (Cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up! Cheerily, cheer-up!!), red-winged blackbirds (Conk-la-ree!), and the northern cardinal (Birdie, birdie, birdie! Cheer, cheer, cheer! — no wonder the St. Louis baseball club chose this mascot). I can usually tell when a mockingbird is singing a cover tune because I realize the familiar song has a new arrangement.

The further afield I stray from my audio comfort zone, or the built environment, though, the more I rely on my eyes for ID.  That said, I have a niche talent, developed in the late 990s while I was running a large wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas: I can easily identify a wide range of bird species by the sounds their nestlings and fledglings make when a parent (biological or a stand-in human) arrives with food.

[photo: smilla4, ccl]

That’s how I found out it’s baby blue jay season here in southwest Virginia. I haven’t done hands-on rehab for a long while but as soon as I heard those competitively pitiful “Feed ME! Feed ME!” cries, I knew. Young blue jays used to come into the center by the shoebox-full so that particular call for attention is burned on my brain.

Adult blue jays aren’t the most popular wild neighbors. Jay parents will actively, even aggressively, defend their offspring and, well, there are always people eager to criticize the way others raise their children. Jays also have a reputation for eating the eggs and nestlings of other birds… true, but relatively rare. An extensive study observed this behavior in only 1% of jays. They certainly aren’t the only feathered folk who will help themselves to a snack from an unattended nest but jays, with their signature sapphire, white, black, and gray plumage plus that jaunty crest, are so recognizable they receive more blame than is warranted.

What’s less well-known is that blue jays are always on sentry duty, and when they spot a predator or other threat they shout an alarm call the whole avian neighborhood understands.

[photo: duluoz cats, ccl]

Mom and Dad have PR problems but their offspring are undeniably endearing. Jays are an example of true co-parenting. The female incubates a clutch of eggs for 17-18 days, and during this time and for the first 8-12 days after the nestlings hatch, the male provides all of the family meals. Blue jays can carry food in their gular pouch, an area in the throat and upper esophagus. Acorns are a favorite (which makes my throat hurt just to think of it!).  Once ambient temperatures are warm enough, and the kids are old enough to thermoregulate, the female will join her mate on grocery runs.

Every summer, young jays arrive in wildlife rehabilitation centers, veterinary offices, kitchens, and grade school classrooms across the species’ range. They’re an abundant urban bird so it isn’t surprising blue jays would account for a large number of rehab intakes, but there are other factors at play as well. Nestling jays often venture out of the nest and onto nearby branches several days before they fledge (take their first flight). Sometimes a storm or strong breeze will give gravity a helping hand and the branchers end up on the ground sooner than expected.

Mom and Dad aren’t going to give up on Junior just because s/he made an ill-advised decision. They’ll continue to feed and monitor their children — both the wanders and the cautious ones who wait for their feathers to grow a bit longer before taking the plunge — for up to 2 months after the nest is empty. While the fledglings learn to fly they’ll be left alone at times, albeit usually within watching distances of their keen-eyed supervisors. The young ‘uns don’t mind but well-intentioned humans may find it harder to accept. One of the downside of looking winsome is that when people see you sitting on the ground or perched on a low branch, seemingly abandoned, they really, really want to help.

You’ve may have heard this Good Samaritan tune before but I’ll sing it again…

First, do no harm.

If you find a baby bird and think it might have been abandoned:

  • Wait and watch for the parents to return. In the case of a blue jay, an adult may actually dive bomb before you get very close to their precious child but not all species or individuals are that confident so be sure to give everyone plenty of room to feel safe.
  • If the bambino is well-feathered, bright-eyed, and looking around curiously, give the parents at least 60-90 minutes to return.
  • However, if the little one is clearly injured, or very young (naked or barely feathered, eyes closed), then it’s time to take action.

[photo: katrina j houdek, ccl]

Permitted wildlife rehabilitators will never be able to match the skills of a wild parent but they are trained to provide the proper nutrition and environment wild kids need to grow up healthy and strong, knowing they are blue jays (or Cooper’s hawks, or squirrels, or deer, or whatever they are) instead of people, and capable of living in the wild once they’ve been released.

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council website can help you access assistance, and if you’re based in the U.S. there’s a free app for iPhone and Android called Animal Help Now. You don’t even know be able to identify the bird, by sight or by sound, to make the call.


© 2017 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask).


northern mockingbird

Northern mockingbirds are known for their expansive song repertoires (Photo: Henry T. McLin, Creative Commons license)


The melody seeped into my REM cycle, making me just lucid enough to believe someone was singing a cappella outside my window. But my sleep-clouded brain couldn’t make out the words and I didn’t recognize the voice either. Besides, I wasn’t aware of anyone who might want to serenade me (although, you never know). Slowly, as I became more conscious, it dawned on me that although this was definitely a love song, I was not the target audience… or even the target species.

When awakened by birdsong, it’s natural to assume that it is actually dawn, even when it feels like mere minutes since your head hit the pillow, so as I surfaced from beneath the quilt I winced in anticipation of bright light.

The singing blared like a desert sun, but the room was dark as the inside of an acoustic guitar.

A moment’s confusion, followed by a quick glance at the alarm clock—1:40am—and I confirmed not just the identity of the vocalist but his predicament as well: a young male northern mockingbird with a lonely (or maybe just randy) heart.

Mockingbird men can’t rely on flashy plumage to catch a potential date’s attention because they share the same understated but distinctive grayscale wardrobe as their women. But the name, Mimus polyglottos, says it all—”mimic of many tongues.” Songbirds often have a brief window of opportunity during their youth when they learn their species soundtrack. The males later use that imprinted tune to practice their pickup lines, and the females recognize potential mates based on that childhood template.  Mockingbirds, however, are not one-hit wonders. These guys are dedicated to expanding their repertoire, learning as many as 200 songs over the course of a lifetime. And the dolls eat it up like candy… or make that cucumber beetles.

Adult northern mockingbird and two fledglingsA male leaves his winter habitat and begin tuning up in early February, attempting to establish a nesting territory before the gals arrive. Once he finds his seasonal significant other, he turns down the volume and his songs become shorter. Female mockingbirds sing too (a trait that’s fairly uncommon among songbirds), although not as loudly as the males and seldom during the breeding season. Raising small children is a all-consuming endeavor, or so I hear, that doesn’t leave little much time for recreational pursuits. Unpaired males, on the other hand, have both the time and the motivation to keep singing, almost to the point of obsession. They keep looking for love, and belting out ballads, until late in the season.

Which is exactly what was going on outside my window this morning. Now, normally, I’m not only a fan of birdsong, I’m a pretty empathetic individual as well, so my heart went out to that poor, single-minded, solitary soul.

My brain, on the other hand, wanted to have a word with that bird. “Happy hour is over, buddy, and the ladies have all gone home. Give it up. Tomorrow’s another day—DAY being the operative word here… get my drift?”

If this night music keeps up, I may have to strongly suggest he try a new approach. I could recommend a helpful online dating site.


© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Melvin Yap for making his photo of an adult northern mockingbird feeding two fledglings  available through a Creative Commons license.