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Raising Cayo

Updated: Aug 29

A beautiful little surprise came into our life a few months ago that really took us on a journey.

I pulled into the driveway after school drop off during the last week of May, and watched in disbelief as an aggressive, adolescent Scrub Jay tossed one of the newly hatched baby Jays out of the nest in the tree over our driveway. We got a ladder and put two of the babies back but later found one of them again on the pillows we placed beneath the nest.

The other two babies didn’t make it, so we did the only logical thing with the one survivor and brought it into the house, made it a nest, gave it some of our chicks’ grow mash by syringe, and figured if it survived the night, we would call Wildlife Care Network in the morning. By the next afternoon, even with a bloody head and swollen eye, the little hatchling was perking up. It gave us the most helpless and disarming cheeps and suddenly we remembered that after two decades of keeping chickens, we might know a thing or two about raising baby birds.

But unlike barnyard birds who are fairly self-sufficient right out of the egg, this little California Scrub Jay needed our constant attention. They are nest birds, which means they are fed for weeks by their parents. And then for weeks after that, taught to fly and forage under the careful instruction of both parents. From hatchling to fledgling to independent can take two to three months.

That was just fine with us. This little helpless and injured hatchling squawked its way right into our hearts, as it turned into a demanding fluff ball that had us all by our rapt attention. It learned quickly that anyone walking past at any moment would willingly stop and feed him. We put syringe after syringe of nutrient-dense chick food down his little delicate, pink neck. And when he started to get control of his top heavy-body on his stilt-like legs we began to feed him live mealworms by the handful. As many as he could hold as often as he wanted.

We loved him immediately. And since he literally fell into our lives, we named him Cayo, as in se cayo, which in Spanish means fell. And we were falling too. As a highly intelligent bird, he tracked our moves. We carried him around and snuggled him up while he napped his way to healing. When he sprouted little blue feathers, he learned to sit on our shoulders and balance on the slimness of a chopstick. When he needed more room than the little ramekin provided, we pulled a wire cage from the chicken coop and feathered it with tree branches from the Elm on the driveway where he was born. He started to fly in short spurts and then quickly made his way to the other side of the kitchen, where he learned to love a bath in the kitchen sink and leftover crumbs on the stovetop.

He had our full attention - invited to the table at dinner, perched on a desk during work hours, jumping on the head of anyone that walked past, and nestled into a neck when it was time for an afternoon nap. If you spent even a few moments with us caring for him, you might have seen that he was caring for us, too. Let me hide a worm in your collar, he would say, and maybe we can share it later. Let me sit on your head, he would say, and I’ll tell you about everything important I see from up here. Let me invite you outside to find me in a tree, and in doing so you will look up because it’s time for you to take a break from your important life, and marvel at the color of the sky.

We considered getting a bigger cage and keeping him inside for some kind of hybrid indoor-outdoor living. But as he got bigger, smarter, and more aggressive, it was apparent that he was first and foremost a wild bird of the highest intelligence, that would need more open sky than closed-in walls. And so, we started to train him outside, putting his cage in the shade of a tree so he could get accustomed to the wind, the sounds, the other birds, and the shifting light.

He spent his first night in a tree almost by accident, which led to the freedom of daytime, too. But he always came back for a worm, or water, or to sneak in the backdoor when someone was coming or going.

In or out, it became hard to remember a time before Cayo. He was so a part of our collective home and our psyche that we could hardly come into the house, or plan to leave as a family without a full evaluation of the impact on his well-being. Everyone looked after him in a different way, which created a special relationship and routine with each of us. It was not unlike raising a baby of any other kind, where they take over your brain and rewire your priorities, and while you marvel at their demands, you also find yourself so completely delighted by their development, intelligence, and disarming and innocent charm.

We loved Cayo. And I use the past tense here as a heart-piercing reality. As we set out on vacation last week, we made sure his needs were met in every way. Our beloved neighbor to check on him during the day, and a relative sleeping over at night. And everything was fine for a few days. Until we received the text over last weekend that he hadn’t been seen since Friday. When we got home on Monday, there was still no sign of him. We called for him and smooched the air letting him know we were back, and as the hours passed our anticipation churned into concern laced with an edge of dread.

The hope was that he had just found his rhythm and no longer needed the umbilical cord of our house and its supplies. But that hope was dashed a few hours after we got home, as I caught a glimpse of blue tail feathers mixed with the tree branches on top of his cage, which was hanging high under the garage eave. To our disbelief, it was unmistakably Cayo - the crown of blue feathers on his head that was once bald from injury. The tuft of grey and blue on his chest that sprouted in the days before we left. It was unmistakably him and his shimmery blue feathers now awry on his stiff body.

We kept the news from the kids until the next morning when the longing to see him became urgent. We have lost birds in the coop many, many times before and each one has been buried lovingly and ceremoniously under the Walnut tree next to the creek. But this bird was different. He was ours and we were his. And when we shared the news of our worst fear with the kids, we saw on their faces exactly what heartbreak looks like.

Our youngest wished out loud that we never had him for a pet – the loss isn’t worth the love. In the first moments of loss, that can feel so, so true. What was it all for anyway? He was half dead on the driveway that day we found him, perhaps that was where his story was supposed to end. But it didn’t end there. We chose love at all costs because that’s what you do when it needs doing.

For most of the week, I took this loss of love to my core wound, which is abandonment. I was convinced that he died of a broken heart, thinking we had left him. I shared that with Ryan on a walk yesterday, and he admitted that it crossed his mind, too. But we walked our way out of that possibility and concluded that he ate something that made him sick.

The tape on the car dash cam revealed that he was alive and well and fed on Thursday night, but when he hopped on top of his cage just before sunset, the tape shows that he never came down. Our best guess is that during his foraging rounds that day, he had come upon something he shouldn’t have eaten, or that exposed him to something contagious. Whatever it was, he went up but never came down.

And so now we are left with the short-lived, but sweet memories of a bird that captured our hearts. Cayo’s gift was to bring us into the present moment. To bring us back into our more primal rhythms. He invited us to pause every hour and tend to the forage. To be present in the singular task of finding a worm hiding in the shavings. Or, as he landed on the keyboard to preen, reminding us to pause and take stock of our own bodies that carry us through this life.

As I am known to do, I looked up the significance of a Scrub Jay as a spirit animal, and I learned that Jays represent courage and big, bodacious risk. Bodacious was actually the word they used. Oh, how I love this so much, Cayo. Yes, and thank you, and yes. As tempting as it is to find safety in the routine, you my friend came to remind us that life is best lived in the spaces in between. Get lost, explore a new tree, carry on without knowing where you are headed, and enjoy the adventure of the bodacious and unapologetic exploration of your life.

Thank you, Cayo, for bringing us into the moment, and delivering us laughter and surprise, and delight. We’ll keep the worms alive, and the porch light on, for any time your spirit wants to sneak in the back door.

With all of our love,

Your Humans

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