‘saving jemima: life and love with a hard-luck jay,’ with julie zickefoose

LIKE WRITER, ARTIST and wildlife rehabilitator Julie Zickefoose, I am particularly fascinated and also often startled by the interface of birds and people. Her latest book, “Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay,” is the story of an orphaned blue jay and Julie’s decision to try to help save it. And it’s also a much bigger story with provocative chapter titles like “Who’s Saving Whom?” and “Lessons From a Jay.”

Julie and I spoke recently about her eight-month relationship with beloved Jemima. The special bird opened up many subjects for her, such as elusive patterns of blue jay movement and behavior that Julie began to grasp once she learned to recognize individual jays, including Jemima, by the markings on their faces. She got insights into topics like why and when birds molt, what molt patterns reveal about their genetics, and more. Julie even shared her recipe for a winter feeder-bird treat called Zick Dough Improved.

Read along as you listen to the September 9, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Important note: The quality of the phone line for this episode was unusually spotty, and we apologize, but the transcript is complete and includes every detail of my conversation with Julie.

Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Saving Jemima” in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.

a blue jay q&a with julie zickefoose



Margaret Roach: Hi, Julie. We haven’t spoken since your “Baby Birds” book in 2016. How are you?

Julie Zickefoose: That’s too long, Margaret. I’m doing great.

Margaret: So to get us started, maybe you tell us what “Saving Jemima” is about and the experience that led to it.

Julie: Well, this book is my first that traces the arc of one special bird, and all of my other books have been compilations of stories about a bunch of different birds or animals. And so in that it’s quite different from the others and I really, really enjoyed it. It was almost more like writing a novel than a big sort of reference or compilation of essays.

So that’s really fun. And I think it’s grabby for that reason. I think that when people pick it up, they’re telling me they can’t put it down. And that’s a wonderful thing because there’s a story line that just runs all the way through it.

Margaret: Yes, and that was my experience. It came in the mail from your publisher, and I started and I was like, “Ah, I’m hooked. I’m hooked. What’s happening next? What’s happening next? Where’s Jemima. Is she coming back?” [Laughter.]

Julie: Yes, yes, exactly. That’s where I was for eight months. I followed her arc and I followed her everyday life and that is a huge privilege to be able to be in the life of a blue jay for eight months.

Margaret: Yes. But now this was not your first, shall we say, “rodeo.” You’ve rehabilitated birds before, lived with birds before, so this wasn’t the first time, but it’s a little different.

Julie: Right. I’ve probably rehabilitated or raised about 24, 25 species of songbirds. And it’s a very, very interesting thing because each species has its own developmental path and its own personality, for lack of a better word. Its own way of looking at the world and moving through it. And so it’s so interesting to me to finally get my hands on a Corvid, the family that includes ravens and crows and jays, because they’re supremely intelligent birds and very social. And so that was why it was such a wild ride raising this bird.

Margaret: And you just said Corvid, and they’re related to ravens and crows, and I mean I think you talk about in the book about how even though most people could recognize a blue jay, that it’s a very “familiar bird,” it’s actually quite an unfamiliar bird in the sense that not a ton is known really about all the intricacies of their life history. But also I don’t even think most regular folks who can ID that bird know that it’s a cousin of the crow and the raven, and it tells a lot about it, doesn’t it?

Julie: It does. It does. I think of them as tiny blue crows. And that’s a good way to think of them because they are social like crows, they stay together in bands and they travel around together, they roost together possibly. We don’t actually know what they do in many cases because they’re so intelligent that you cannot capture them more than once.

Margaret: Right.

Julie: And if you mist-net blue jays at a certain location, you will never catch the same birds there again [laughter], so that puts a crimp on all kinds of behavioral studies, and banding and everything like that because you can’t recapture them because they’re just too darn smart. It’s a fascinating thing.

We don’t really know what they do when they migrate. We don’t know why they fly east-west, unlike almost any other bird in North America, rather than north-south. Some of them go north-south. Most of them go east-west. Why would you do that in winter? Why would you go west in winter? Does it get better? No. [Laughter.] So there’s all kinds of weird mysteries, and when they’re nesting, they’re incredibly secretive and silent. And I had one nesting right in my front yard in a small Japanese maple and didn’t even know it.

Margaret: So I want to talk more about the nesting and the migration and lots of things. But you didn’t tread lightly into this relationship with Jemima, who showed up in a way. You had a concern that a young bird … Tell us how she came into your life, but you had a concern, a well-founded concern, that a young bird needs to learn to be a wild bird, too, and not imprint on a human. So tell us a little bit about that sort of first decision-making process.

Julie: Well, sure. Jemima was found on a city sidewalk in Marietta, Ohio, not far from where I live, and was left for nine hours in the hope that the parents would be feeding it and they never appeared. And so from the very start, she had some serious deprivation. It’s really bad for a baby bird to go all day without food. So that sets them off on a bad foot. And she was literally dying when I got her, but I brought her back, re-hydrated her and gave her some nutrition, brought her back.

The relationship with her was complex because as social beings, jays and crows, Corvids, are prone to imprinting on their captors or their keepers, and you have to be careful about that. But I learned in the course of raising Jemima that even at 11 days old, she already firmly knew she was a blue jay, probably because she had seen her parents, she had more importantly heard them, imprinted on their calls and so she always knew she was a blue jay.

All I had to do in raising her was to keep her within sight and sound of wild jays to remind her of her identity and it all played out very nicely. She lived in my kitchen on the back of the kitchen chairs most of the times or in a small Easter basket before she could fly. And I kept the window open, and I kept peanuts on the railing right outside the window. And so she could always see blue jays coming and going, and she was rapt when she saw them. She knew she was a blue jay even when she was tiny. [Above, Julie’s illustration of Jemima connecting through the window with other jays.]

Margaret: We said before that blue jays are a familiar species, and in many ways though, a lot of their behavior I guess is kind of unstudied. Yet in this experience of this relationship that you two had together, you started studying many aspects of blue jays—some to help in her survival and others for this sort of bigger picture about her species. You mentioned migration for instance, and you just said this is a species that goes east-west versus north-south, but lots of other things you learned about blue jays. I mean, they don’t migrate far, far, far, do they? Or what are they, partial migrants? Or what are they?

Julie: It’s not really known. They may be facultative migrants, which means they go as far as they need to go to find more food. And because they’re very winter hardy, they aren’t really having to go south to find insects. Do you know what I mean? Since they’re relying on a lot of plant material for food in the winter, like acorns, it doesn’t really mean they have to fly to Costa Rica to find katydids.

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Julie: The way I would describe what the birds in my yard seem to do is they make a circuit and I became used to seeing a certain flock of birds reappear every two to three weeks. They would stay for a few days and then leave and another bunch would come in and replace them. So once I learned to identify the blue jays’ faces individually and figure out who hung out with whom, then I could say, “Oh, this is the flock that contains Little Bit and Frost.” [Above, Julie’s portraits of some of the jays she came to recognize by their facial markings.]

Margaret: [Laughter.] They told you their names, right, Julie? They said t, “Hi, Julie…”

Julie: There’s a lot contained in that statement: “Learn to recognize the faces.”

Margaret: Not easy.

Julie: Not easy. And it’s been my joy and my travail to try to identify these birds individually. But I am at the point where there are about a dozen that I can recognize.

Margaret: And one of them was a bird who I think was lame in some way. Why do I want to say Peg? I made that up. Did I make that up?

Julie: Peg.

Margaret: Peg. Oh, I’m right.

Julie: Her name was Peg. She was the first blue jay that I learned to recognize individually and she had a great big marker, which was a dangling, useless leg. And I watched her for the better part of two winters, actually two and a half years, coping with this insane infirmity of having only one usable leg, which for a jay is … it should have killed her. Because jays hold things between their toes to hammer open nuts and seeds, and she couldn’t do that. She also couldn’t balance well enough to cache food, to bury it. She couldn’t preen. She probably couldn’t bathe and so she was kind of ragged looking, but that bird survived.

Margaret: As we say, she was a tough bird, huh? [Laughter.]

Julie: She was a tough old jay. Yes.

Margaret: Well also, so I live in New York State and the Hudson Valley sort of adjacent to the Berkshires of Massachusetts, so a rural environment and lots of birds, a lot of forest land and a lot of agricultural land, and a cold climate. And so blue jays, I think of them as winter birds in the sense that when I put up feeders, they’re one of the best customers and the loudest customers. [Laughter.]

But I don’t see them a lot in the hot weather, which I don’t know if that necessarily means they’re not around, but they don’t show themselves regularly in groups the way that they do to me during feeder season. I can’t feed because of bears until a little bit after Thanksgiving and I have to stop around March sometime.

Julie: I am so sorry.

Margaret: Yes, it’s tricky.

Julie: I really, I feel for you and people are always saying, “Oh, well we might get bears in Southern Ohio,” and I’m like, “I don’t want bears.”

Margaret: It’s tricky. And they come in the yard anyway, even without feeders up, the bears do, but you just don’t want to encourage that habituation on a large animal of that nature, you know?

But I think of them, as I said, I think of jays as, “Where are my jays?” [Laughter.] In the summertime I’m like, “Where are you guys?” and occasionally I’ll see one, but not really. And then the pack is back in feeder season or whatever. And so I don’t know if you have the same thing?

Julie: I’m going to make you feel a lot better about your bear situation because that’s exactly my experience in bear-free Southern Ohio.

Margaret: Oh. O.K.

Julie: I said to my daughter just this morning, “I actually can’t wait for late fall when my jays come back.” And I feed all summer long. I’ve got the peanuts out and I have had one jay today, even though the food is right there. So they are busy probably eating insects in the summer. Insects, small mammals, and taking a few birds’ eggs here and there, but they don’t need feeders and they need them a little bit more in the winter. And they also flock up in the winter and that’s when they go around hitting the feeders.

Margaret: Yes. One of the other things that I think that Jemima and her presence and your then therefore sort of looking deeper into the world of the blue jay with her as your inspiration: Another thing you studied, I think you talked about in the book is molting. How birds molt and their molting patterns. And you learned a lot from that, not just about jays, but about taxonomy and genetics and the relationships among different species. So can we talk just a little bit about molting because that’s … I don’t know when birds molt, if it’s always at a certain time of year, but it may be something that people are seeing and might wonder about. [Above, Jemima during a “bald” phase.]

Julie: Yes, actually molt is an absolutely fascinating topic and there’s actually a field guide to molt that was published recently. And because each species of bird has a molting pattern and timing that is unique to its species, you can actually do bird taxonomy, you can use molt as an identifying character for which birds are related to which.

Margaret: Wow.

Julie: And the example that I use in the book is there was a lot of confusion about where falcons fit in the taxonomic hierarchy. They seem not to be hawks. They’re something other. They aren’t kites, they aren’t hawks, they aren’t owls. They’re falcons, and when they did DNA analysis, they came out most closely related to parrots. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Parrots? Not my first guess.

Julie: Yes, and get this: Both falcons and parrots molt from the inner primary Number 9 out. So they’ll drop Number 9, and then they’ll drop Number 8, and then Number 7, out towards the end of the wing.

Margaret: Tell us what a primary is because people may not know there’s several types of feathers. What’s a primary?

Julie: Yes. In the wing there are primaries and secondaries, so primaries are on the outer half of the wing, and the secondaries are on the inner half of the wing.

Margaret: Right. So they have an orderly molt of those primary feathers?

Julie: Right. And then when you think about it, then I was given to think about the things I’ve seen falcons and parrots do. Falcons will pick up a piece of food in their fist and eat it like a parrot will take a peanut. And also falcons are incredibly playful and very raucous, and I’ve seen a peregrine falcon diving again and again to catch a monarch butterfly, release it, dive again, catch it, release it. That’s kind of a parrot-y thing to do. Parrots are actually fond of meat, and no one would have believed that. But my macaw, Charlie, used to hold a chicken drumstick in her fist and wave it around and chew on the meat. [Laughter.]

Julie: So anyway, not to go on about falcons, but molt is fascinating and is characteristic to individual species, and the molt pattern in blue jays is they keep their juvenile flight feathers, those primaries and secondaries of the wing, through their entire year. They get the juvenile feathers and they hang on to them until the August of the next year. So they have to go through an entire winter and summer on those baby feathers.

Margaret: Right. So in the book, you say at one point … you’re talking about where you live and before you came to this place and lived in this house that there were no feeders put up there. But once you started putting up feeders that pretty darn quick, the local birds learned your every move, right?

And this cracked me up because just from feeder birds in general, but especially the jays because literally (as do the crows), they seem, especially in winter, to watch my every move. I have this crazy habit of … I have an old house and in the cellar I trap mice and I take the mouse bodies and I put them under the bird feeder because either-

Julie: That’s what I do. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Great minds think alike, crazy woman.

Julie: Crazy ladies think alike.

Margaret: And guess, what: within 2 seconds, a Corvid, one or the other, as you say, a blue crow or a crow, comes and takes it.

And then another crazy thing was, I don’t know how many winters years ago, there would be this tapping in the winter on the light-colored latex paint on my porch posts out front, and it was always blue jays. And I read and read and read and found out that they were harvesting paint chips, because latex paint has calcium in it and the females can use it to build up their stores of calcium in order to have better eggs or whatever. And I’m thinking, “This is insane. These birds are brilliant.” [Laughter.]

Julie: Yes, yes. And trying to toast those eggshells in the oven, and take those out instead …

Margaret: And that’s what I do now. And I learned that, and so I heat them so that they’re you can’t transmit salmonella or whatever, and put them out. I give them all my egg shells and they immediately lift off. I mean, I can put out 10 egg shells and everybody comes and that’s the end of that. The eggshells are gone.

Julie: I love it. You said crumble them so it takes them longer to take them all away.

Margaret: Yes, it’s very funny. They’re flying salvagers, you know? But, yes, it’s kind of crazy.

And you say in the book also a blue jay is a sentient being, a thinking being. You say, “Her base instincts have a governor. They’re subject to rational override.” Without anthropomorphizing the bird, you’re talking about this incredible thinking creature. Yes?

Julie: Yes, absolutely. Yes. The example I used … and before we leave calcium, I just wanted to say that I have several jays who like to eat the perlite out of the potting soil.

Margaret: Yes. It’s crazy, right? [Laughter.]

Julie: Yes. Again, probably a calcium thing. I put out egg shells year round for the jays. Anyway. The sentient. Yes. That was describing a situation where Jemima was compromised because her wing feathers broke off.

Margaret: Yes.

Julie: Because of that early deprivation and disease in her life, so she didn’t fly very well. And I saw this Cooper’s hawk was hunting in the yard and the flock she was with burst out of the spruce tree they were all sitting in and took off down the orchard and one jay started to fly and then retreated back into the spruce, and it was Jemima. She knew that if she followed the flock, as her instincts were screaming to her to do, she would be picked off.

And that was the sentient override that I saw in that bird as she realized her infirmity, and knew that she couldn’t go with the rest. I can’t imagine that a cardinal would think that way.

Margaret: No. So tell us a little bit more about her. About the eight months with her. She really became a member of the family in a way.

Julie: Oh, she started off a very solid member of the family, yes, and since we were her flock, she hung out with us and if we left the room as a group, she would fly into the room that we were in, and it was very endearing. And once I released her, though, she teamed up in early August with another jay, a male who we had named Maybelline. My daughter named the bird that because it had so much eye makeup. That turned out to be a male, and Jemima kept company with Maybelline from early August until I last saw her around Christmas. So that was, I think, a mate. They were almost always seen together.

And so yes, Jemima was part of our family, but as soon as she was released, went free, she still came in for food, but she did not come in the house any longer and she did not land on us, any of that. It was a very smooth transition to the wild.

Margaret: Right. We were talking about feeding birds and so forth, and you have something that you call Zick Dough. Tell us about Zick Dough, as in the first syllable of your last name. [Laughter.] What’s Zick Dough?

Julie: Zick Dough is a concoction that I make for winter feeding only because it’s very rich and it’s easy to Google the recipe online. I use Kickstarter, which is an unmedicated food, an extruded pellet for chickens. I mix that with a corn meal, peanut butter, lard and flour, and it makes a sort of a pasty dough that I serve crumbled and I give it in the winter in a little covered dome feeder or sometimes if it’s nice weather I’ll just put a little bit out on the deck railing. Everything loves it and it’s addictive, and the only caveat is you don’t really want to feed it in warm weather because it’s rich and it can cause gout.

Margaret: Oh, bird gout. Oh how crazy is that? That’s crazy.

Julie: Go for Zick Dough Improved, if you Google it-

Margaret: Improved, O.K. So, what do you think, just wrapping up: What is the thing that when you think of her, when you think back on her now, what are the resonant things, the things that you won’t forget that she left with you?

Julie: I think the greatest gift Jemima gave me was she threw open the portal to jay society and she enabled me to get into their inner workings as a group and as a species and she was the keystone. And having lived with her, having raised her, I’ll never, ever look at jays the same again. I’ll always have this deep, deep affection for them, and also a way to sort of understand how they think.

And identifying the individuals—and I give a lot of points in the last chapter of the book on how to identify individual jays—is the key to knowing their behavior and getting some feeling for their continuity of their lives from year to year. That was the great gift she gave me. That and she got me back into my true craft, which is observing and sharing nature. It’s what I need to be doing all the time.

Margaret: “Observing and sharing nature. It’s what I need to be doing all the time.” Very smart words and I completely … I can’t imagine a day without some connection to the outdoors. I really can’t at this phase in my life, so thank you, Julie. Thank you so much.”

Julie: Thank you.

more about julie, blue jays and other corvids

enter to win a copy of ‘saving jemima’

I’LL BUY A COPY OF ‘Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay’ by Julie Zickefoose for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

What’s your relationship with blue jays, and when do they visit your garden (tell us where that is)?

No answer, of feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will,but a reply is even better. I’ll select a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 17, 2019. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 9, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Christine says:

    My garden is in western Oregon. We have scrub jays and stellar jays visit us daily. They are very smart, clever, curious and observant birds. I love it when they are around. Sometimes they have territorial disputes and feuds, and sometimes there’s high drama, comedy and tragedy in our back yard. Once a crow was eating a baby scrub jay and every other species of bird in the area seemed to be attacking the crow, along with the jays: hummingbirds, stellar jays, starlings, sparrows, robins… they were all harassing the crow to stop it from eating that little jay. Needless to say, it ended in tragedy, but I was impressed that all these other birds came to the rescue, harassing the crow tirelessly.

  2. Lucinda Horton says:

    Here in Illinois, I don’t see jays at the feeders much in the summer, but I am always glad to see them come back for fall and winter. They are always here early in the mornings.

  3. Amy Olmsted says:

    I experience blue jays almost every day. we hang a number of feeders at our home and they are very active! I also see and/or hear them where I work at Rocky Dale Gardens in Bristol, VT.

  4. Beckie Moran says:

    We live in Central OR and have blue jays. Also if we take a hike at Todd lake with a picnic we get a kick out of the gray jay that will take your sandwich right out of your hands.

  5. Maureen says:

    I have a red circular peanut holder that the Blue Jays visit to show me how persistent they are and acrobatic as well. I am a newbie here and so glad I found you.

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