Baby Birds 201 – Bluejays Steal My Heart
So a small clutch of baby Scrub Jays came into the nature center several days ago. The deliverer had found momma bird deceased and was clearly distressed to have discovered her babies orphaned. There were three. They were lethargic, quiet, cold, and in shock.
I called my rehabber and explained the situation. Instead of her usual response, “Okay, when can we meet up?” she said, “Okay, here’s what you do.” Rehabbers are typically overwhelmed in the springtime and apparently she thought I could handle baby birds solo.
I was up for the challenge.
The three babies were dehydrated and hungry, but they wouldn’t beg. In fact, they wouldn’t really do anything typical of baby bird behavior. I was instructed to make a nest for them, so I found a little basket and placed it in a kennel lined with towels. A heating pad went beneath the towels as baby birds (and most other baby animals) need to be kept really warm.
I got a hold of some high-protein dry cat food and soaked it for a while in fruit-flavored Gatorade (for electrolytes) until it was mush. None of the babies would open their mouths or beg. Delicately using a pair of forceps, I took tiny amounts of the mush and force-fed them. The trouble with baby birds is that their windpipes are in or near their tongues; force-feeding means you have to get the food past the air tube so you don’t accidentally suffocate them. Needless to say, having to pry open three little beaks, shove food down their throats followed by Gatorade, and repeat as often as possible for two straight days was a new experience for someone mildly OCD.
One chick squawked and fussed when I held him to feed him. The second put up a much smaller fight. The third put up no fight, and on the second day, I lost him. The fussy chick had a chance, I knew, but my concern then turned to the middle chick, who stood on the edge between passing and survival. Neither would submit to using the nest I’d made, and they fussed if they were placed too closely together. (If you’ve ever heard a Scrub Jay, their calls are far from elegant and pleasing.)
On the third day I removed the last two from the dark kennel and placed them into a large, mesh enclosure so I could more easily keep an eye on them. The spunky one seemed more spunky – he could easily stand on my finger and was more attentive and curious. The other was still tinkering, slow and unsteady, falling on his face. He was clearly less coordinated. However, something magical happened – one, then the other, began opening their mouths on their own for food. Soon they were stuffed to the gills with cat food (oh, the irony), and both birds started to perk up.
They were unceremoniously dubbed Bubba and Gump.
Bubba is the spunky one; he eats more and is more active. He was the first to beg, the first to start preening, and the first to start testing out his wings. Gump is not nearly as coordinated as Bubba, but is just a smidge bigger, and I think a smidge smarter. Bubba bounces around the cage, while Gump spends most of his time resting. If he does venture off the heat pad, there’s a high chance he’ll face-plant at some point. I have to poke Bubba off of Gump’s back at least once a day because Gump is not strong enough to stand up with his brother on his back, and there’s nothing sadder than a squashed Gump, squawking and flailing.
By the end of the third or fourth day, something else amazing happened. Gump, instead of begging for food, wanted to peck the food off the forceps himself. While Bubba bounced around, Gump was learning to forage right before my eyes. After the slow progress, he was finally performing a behavior perfect for his age!
Consulting with the researcher that works at the Nature Center (and has spent a lifetime taking in orphaned critters – his kids grew up around songbirds, raptors, tortoises, and even an adventurous turkey), we agreed that the chicks are probably 2 or 3 weeks old. They have their pin feathers, which must itch, because by the end of that third day they were also picking and preening at their wings.
More little advancements came each day. I was ecstatic to see them begin performing what I like to call bird yoga. First one wing is stretched out and behind the body, followed by the second. The legs are stretch-stretch-stretched until the bird looks like a tiny stork instead of a blue jay. Two nights ago, Bubba surprised me by leaping out of a box I use to transport them between home and work and flying from chair-back to light fixture, making an unholy ruckous when I wrangled him back into the box. Feeding became easy – when I approached, the little mouths went wide open and gluttonously accepted the mush.
Now, they eat less when I feed, but they beg more often. Their open mouths are accompanied by a little bit of wing fluttering and delicate twittering sounds. They preen and stretch regularly, brush their beaks on things, and have even begun pecking at objects – the branch in the cage, a shiny sticker that I immediately removed from the upturned basket, even their own feet.
There are lots of lessons to learn when you’re a baby bird, especially about balance, coordination, and asking for what you need. Perhaps my favorite lesson of the last few days that I’ve watched Bubba learn is that it’s critical to know the difference between a speck of food and your brother’s poop before putting it into your mouth.
Did I mention these little guys are absolute shit factories?
For more Blue Jay goodness:
And learn more about baby birds here:
Posted on June 2, 2011, in Connected Living, Fauna, Naturalist Notebook, The Roaming Naturalist and tagged animal, aves, baby, baby birds, birds, caring for, feeding, how, nature, orphan, photography, rehabilitation, rescue, wildlife, wildlife rehab. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.