Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay
By Julie Zickefoose
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019
In the springtime, panicked individuals will find themselves typing “baby bird” into a Google search, thumbing through countless results of instructions of what to do after finding a tiny, naked, and completely helpless creature separated from the safety of the nest. The top recommendation will be to safely and unobtrusively return the youngster to its parents, but, in many cases, this will prove impossible. The next best option is to bring the baby to an experienced wildlife rehabilitator, a title that author Julie Zickefoose held for years. It was this label that put her on a list of resources for one such desperate, would-be baby bird-rescuer, who sent over all the details on a young blue jay, found looking poorly on the ground with no nest in sight.
Although she can’t possibly take in every bird she’s contacted about, something about this jay spoke to Zickefoose. Not too long before, she had attempted to hatch a local blue jay egg otherwise destined to become lunch for a hungry snake. A mishap with an incubator sadly ended in the egg no longer being viable and although she’s no stranger to the harsh realities of nature, it still proved to be a blow to Zickefoose’s spirits. To get a second chance to raise a jay felt like fate, and so her family takes in the young female, a little beauty they give same name as a daughter of Job: Jemima. So begins Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay, the author’s account of raising this jay to a releasable state and the continuing drama once she was returned to the wild.
Fostering a bird is hard work and should not be done by amateurs who will likely be largely ignorant of the wide expanse of the bird’s needs, especially since such needs tend to vary by species. One worry when humans raise birds so closely is that they will “imprint” upon their caretakers. Birds who are raised separate from their species occasionally begin to think they are human, rejecting those social connections with fellow birds that will prove vital to their survival in the wild. Imprinted birds must forever remain in captivity and although they can teach humankind much about the still-remaining mysteries of the avian world, it’s a fate no rehabilitator wishes on the birds they lovingly raise. The bird ideally will only ever be the equivalent of a rock star hotel guest: causes a ruckus, does some serious indoor damage, but leaves everyone with some wild stories after check out.
Though imprinting is rare and, as the author explains, normally only happens when the bird is orphaned so young that they never get a chance to see and interact with other birds of their kind, it was still a worry in Jemima’s case because of the nature of blue jays. Jays are corvids, meaning they share a classification with the infamously intelligent crows, ravens, magpies, and rooks. Anyone who has been lucky enough to spy a blue jay in their neighborhood will know them to be incredibly resourceful and social, but also with a leaning toward the aggressive. Inviting one of these wily creatures into one’s living room is bound to stir up some trouble and Jemima proves this with gusto as she screams her demands, uses her foraging skills on the family’s belongings, and relentlessly tortures the old family dog like the true younger sibling she is.
This behavior seems to confirm the backyard bully reputation blue jays have, but, through raising Jem, Zickefoose and her family get an up-close view of all the virtues of the species. Jemima’s social nature and bubbly personality allow her to foster rich and distinctive relationships with each member of the family. Even as an orphan raised by humans, she wastes no time buddying up to the neighborhood jays after her release, a resolve that seems consistent in the greater clan. Her intelligence is on full display as she zips around the backyard like a blue bullet, hiding her food away in spots she will later perfectly recall. But most importantly, after each recovery from a dire situation, she displays an incredible and inspirational resiliency.
For the blissful blink of a moment spent in this book, we don’t simply get to know Jemima; we get to be Jemima as we are welcomed into Julie’s family home. We’re offered sustenance with the descriptions and illustrations of all the food Jemima uses to grow up strong. We’re invited into bird-dominated conversation by Zickefoose’s stunning paintings of Jemima that introduce each chapter as though they were hanging casually on the walls of her home. And, only reaffirming the bond the author has already established with the reader, the book’s conclusion is the equivalent of an unforgettable heart-to-heart at the end of a lovely visit. Our author explains how the time spent cherishing a little bird was the wind under her own wings that she dearly needed to persevere through the string of hardships life had begun to inflict upon her:
...Jemima showed me how to let go and be grateful for what I was given. When you get a puppy, you can pretty much count on a decade of companionship, barring accident or illness. When you raise a wild bird, all bets are off. When I took Jemima on, I rolled my heart into a crapshoot. Fate made all the calls. Fate always does. Whether in life, marriage, or bird rehabilitation, things rarely work out the way you envision, hope, dream, or plan for.
The entire book feels like home - the love and grace that encircle it and all the clumsiness and heartache that can be safely felt inside. This is more than a bird book. This is the respite every reader needs from the dangers of the wild. Given the chance, it will feed your soul as you build back up the courage to rejoin the larger world outside.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.