For the Birds Radio Program: Rehab Report: Nike and Sweet Potato

Original Air Date: Oct. 18, 1995

What happens when Nike the Gray Jay meets up with a baby Cedar Waxwing? The answer may surprise you. 3:45

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Last week a woman from Meadowlands brought me a baby Cedar Waxwing that had hit her window. It injured its wing and couldn’t fly for days, and by the time it could get off the ground again, the other waxwings in the area had disappeared. Since this was a young bird, it needed other waxwings to survive, and she had no alternative but to bring it to me. The wing is still not quite right, and I’m afraid it was broken rather than sprained, in which case, at this late date, it may have to spend its life in captivity.

For some reason I keep ending up with birds whose sex can’t be determined in any easy way. I tend to assume all birds are female unless proven otherwise, so I‘11 be calling this one a she.

Baby waxwings are endearing in their behavior as well as their soft, gentle appearance. Waxwing flocks stick together through thick and thin–often one pair will nest inches away from others, and they usually defend no territory whatsoever. Their most well-known and charming habit is passing a berry or flower petal from one bird to the next, often down a long line, back and forth again and again. Eventually one bird actually swallows the morsel and they begin the ritual again. Baby waxwings beg for food from any adult, and every adult waxwing finds these dear little ones, with their bright red mouths irresistible.

My baby, called Sweet Potato is irresistible to more than just waxwings. The first time she saw Nike the Gray Jay, she fluttered her wings and opened her mouth imploringly, and Nike popped a piece of grape into her mouth. I was shocked–after all, Gray Jays typically eat the nestlings of other species–but I think I’ve got it figured out. Baby crows and jays have brightly colored red mouths, just like waxwings, and the sight of that begging mouth must have triggered Nike’s maternal or paternal instinct. Also, although Gray Jays do eat nestlings, they apparently don’t find feathered-out birds appetizing unless they’re squished enough to be unrecognizable. When a Swainson’s Thrush got killed striking a window, I offered it to Nike, but after several hours in her dish, Nike was still uninterested. So the predatory or scavenging instinct isn’t that well-developed in Gray Jays, especially compared to the nurturing instinct.

My problem with taking care of flocking birds is that if they don’t have an appropriate flock available, they’re perfectly willing to settle for me. Sweet Potato isn’t content to sit on a stick perch set up by the window–she wants to sit on my finger. And Nike wants to sit in the crook of my arm. This makes typing on the computer an interesting and slow process, and makes my spell checker indispensable.

Meanwhile, Sneakers the Blue Jay inevitably gets jealous, so I have to let her out of her cage, too. She can’t figure out Nike for the life of her, but if Nike’s on my arm, Sneakers wants to observe her from above by sitting on my head. Of course, no bird wants a potential enemy higher up, so Nike flies up and tries to push her off my head, setting Sneakers to squawking, little Sweet Potato to making her plaintive cries, and my whole little writing room all aflutter. That’s pretty much why I’m trying to let my rehab license expire, but as you can see, I’m just a girl who can’t say no. Meanwhile, the only one coming out ahead is my shampoo company.