From a photo by Sean Benham, licensed under Creative Commons.
I thought I spotted something in the ligustrum tree that grows behind our house.
“Is that a nest?” I asked my wife. She’s a better naturalist than I.
“No way,” she said. She was skeptical that I would notice something like that before she did. Then she took a closer look. “Wow, yes. Maybe it is.”
We saw a couple blue jays hopping around our backyard. One of them flew up to the bramble of twigs in the forking branch, and that removed any lingering doubt.
“It’s awfully low to the ground,” my wife observed. She was worried that it would be subject to the predations of the many feral cats who pass through our yard. We live in Mid-City New Orleans, and the feral population is quite high. My wife makes an effort to trap, neuter, and release unfixed cats when they show up.
“Hmmm,” I said, sipping my beer. “In the epic battle of cat versus bird, whose side are you on?”
“The birds! Haven’t you seen the news? It’s a huge problem. Cats are killers.”
It’s true. Over the course of my lifetime, blue jay populations have declined almost 30%, and cats are a primary culprit. Blue jays are just one example of a larger trend. A recent study suggests that feral cats “are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.”
I find it taxing to think always of the big global picture. What we were considering in our backyard was the micro-local level, an individual drama. And I thought to myself privately that I might be rooting for the cats.
Mr. & Mrs. Jay
That changed the next next morning. I spent a long while watching the blue jays through the window. They were clearly operating as a couple. One was digging for worms on the ground while the other kept watch overhead.
A lot of people don’t like blue jays. They run off other birds, I guess, though woodpeckers and grackles and even squirrels can be more aggressive. Blue jays also get a bad rap for raiding other birds’ nests, but I’m not sure they really do that very often. They really dig acorns, and our neighborhood is inundated with acorns from the live oaks lining the streets. They would have plenty to eat here.
I found myself overjoyed by their presence. Blue jays are pretty to look at. Their coloring comes from melanin. That’s the same pigment that makes our human skins various shades of brown, only in the jays it looks blue, refracted by the structure of cells in their feathers.
Moreover, I took heart at their endeavors to build a life together in our yard. Like many birds, blue jays often mate for life, and I wondered how long this couple had been together. Were they young, new to all this, building their first nest? Blue jays can live almost thirty years. Maybe they were an old couple that had weathered many seasons.
In my mind, I named them Mr. and Mrs. Jay.
Surely nesting birds are one of the most iconic harbingers of spring. I couldn’t wait to show my daughter. We could watch the jays hatch their eggs and raise a family over the course of the coming weeks. This would be the best spring ever!
An ambiguous portent
But when my daughter woke up that morning and made her way downstairs at last, and I took her outside to see the nest, I was perplexed. I couldn’t find it.
She found the remnants of the nest lying on the ground in two pieces. Twigs and string and a daub of mud. It had been in the tree just a moment ago. What had happened? Was it the wind? The feral cats? We couldn’t tell.
Mr. and Mrs. Jay were gone. Bye bye birdie. It’s been several days and they have not returned, nor have we seen any feathery remnants to suggest a battle.
I’m sad about this.
I am not prone to prognostication or seeking signs of the future, but my poet’s heart can’t refrain from seeing this as a parable and an omen. What exactly it means, I’m not sure. Turmoil and upheaval, I suppose. You don’t have to be a seer to predict that.
When I recounted this story to a friend, she saw an entirely different meaning. Perhaps it’s about disillusionment — how the future we envision is not the future we actually get. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale — beware of growing too attached to dreams and desires.
There’s a delicate paradox here. This series of developments captured my attention and my heart. I want to invest them with a deeper meaning. But at the same time, I don’t want to force the issue. I don’t want to rush to judgment. To do so would be to crush the life out of it. Clumsy, like smashing a bird’s egg. Instead, I want to hold it gently, in my mind, and appreciate its many mysterious potentialities.
Ambiguous portents are best.
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.
Bart is also a regular columnist here at HP. His column is called A Pedagogy of Gaia.