For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Ellwood

Original Air Date: Aug. 1, 1989

Laura discovered that the baby Blue Jay she’s taking care of wasn’t injured by a cat, but damaged by lawn pesticides. How’s he doing?

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Many listeners have asked me how my baby Blue Jay is doing. I talked about him on a program a couple of weeks ago—the skin and muscles from the back of his head down his back were slit wide open and he was suffering serious neurological damage. By the time he was found he was starving to death to boot—the most critically injured bird I’ve ever received. At first I thought a cat had attacked him, but suddenly realized that the slit wasn’t really consistent with a cat injury because there was absolutely no bleeding. His skin is unusually thin and fragile, consistent with damage from herbicide poisoning, as is the neurological damage. Sure enough, when I called the lady who found him, she said that the people next door and the people across the street from her have their yards chemically treated by one of the area’s abundant lawn services. So this damaged little jay is apparently paying the true cost of some human’s antipathy for dandelions—it’s rather a steep price to pay.

I’ve been feeding him well and often, and holding him rather than keeping him in a box as much as possible so he can be upright, since he flops all over when not propped up. He requires so much personal attention that when my husband and I drove down to Chicago for our 20 year high school reunion, we brought him along—now he’s not only unusually well-traveled for a baby jay, but he’s also had breakfast in bed in a fancy hotel. His wings are properly developed, but since he has no control over his balance, if he tries to fly he goes backwards or to the side more often than he goes straight ahead, and always crash lands. But he’s in fine spirits nonetheless, pulling himself up and trying again every time, like a baby learning to walk, which, after all, he is. Last week I made him a little harness out of elastic and strung him up to a walker I fashioned out of corrugated cardboard and wheels from some muppet-baby skateboards. In it he’s taken his first real steps and seems to enjoy being in control over where he goes, even if it is hard work.

I’ve named him Ellwood, or Woody for short, in honor of the president of the Port Wing Blue Jay Haters Association. So far the human Ellwood hasn’t sued me.

In the three weeks I’ve had baby Woody he’s shown steady improvement, from feathering out and learning to control his neck and his beak to calling when he wants help and tapping on the keys of my computer. A long time ago I programmed the computer to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for my kids. At first the synthetic music alarmed him, but now he actually seems to enjoy it. He also likes the beeping sounds the computer makes when my children play “Pacman.” Maybe we can teach him how to play with them—he’d probably be an equal competitor for my three-year old Tommy. He’s a great motivator for Joey and Katie to play the piano, since he makes all kinds of soft, happy sounds when they practice. He also takes a great interest in his appearance, and spends a lot of time preening. At first he couldn’t control his head or beak at all, and I had to scratch his feathers for him. Now that he can do it himself, he’s trying to return the favor by preening me—he draws my hair through his beak and gently nibbles at my fingers and arms.

I’d feel ambivalent about caring for a bird of most any other species as deformed and injured as this one, but since Blue Jays are intelligent and adaptable, they can cope with disabilities as well as humans. I’m impatient when people suggest that it would be kinder to put him to sleep—they want to close their eyes to his abnormalities because it makes them feel uncomfortable to watch him struggling. This is the only life this baby bird has ever known, and he can hardly miss what he’s never had. It was chemical lawn sprays that put him into this state, and so it seems like we humans are obligated to help him. His steady improvements, his hearty appetite, and his curiosity and interest in everything going on around him all prove that he wants to make it—with good nutrition and physical therapy, and some piano lessons and a few computer games thrown in for good measure, baby Ellwood may be around for a long, long time.

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”