IT ALL STARTED with an egg, as many things do: birds, turtles, platypuses. This time, what began was a notion, born of curiosity. It was the kind of curiosity that flames up when one stops to contemplate something so perfect and mysterious as a bird’s egg. It’s something we can’t open, something we aren’t given to understand, this capsule of liquid protein, encased in a glossy shell, that will, given time and warmth, produce a squirming bird. For some reason I can’t remember, I was on my hands and knees under a spreading Japanese maple in my southeast Ohio yard. It was May 16, 2016. And there in the grass beneath the maple was an egg, fresh and beautiful, an aqueous olive drab ground color, speckled and splotched with lilac, brown, and black.
“Now, that’s a blue jay egg,” I said, not really knowing how I knew it. I just knew it. My brain did an instant sorting of variables, such as size, color, shape, and what species might lay an egg like this in a rural Ohio yard, and spat out “blue jay.” I looked straight up, knowing the egg had to come from a nest. And I saw the white-spangled tail of a blue jay sticking out over the edge of a lopsided mess of twigs and vines and straw in the top canopy of the maple. I couldn’t believe that there was a jay nesting so close to the house, that I hadn’t known she was there, and most of all that she was sitting stolidly on her nest with me on hands and knees only eight feet below.
I cupped the egg in one hand and trundled quietly on three limbs toward the house, rising up only when I was out of the bird’s startle zone. With a flashlight held up behind it in a dark hallway, I held it in the curl of my fingers, shining the light through it, candling it. There was a yellow yolk floating in clear albumen. It was freshly laid, with no embryo visible as yet. I figured it rolled out of the nest, which looked a bit tilted, or even blew out when the jay wasn’t sitting. I decided to put it back. This involved waiting for the incubating bird to leave; a stepladder, Bill holding it tightly; and me climbing higher than I wanted to. Before I replaced the egg, I decided to take a photo of the nest. Lo and behold, there were two other eggs lying on the shallowest platform of black rootlets I’d ever seen. It wasn’t even a salad plate; it was a saucer. How did those eggs stay in the nest long enough for her to sit on them? Humbled as I generally am by the engineering and artistry of bird nests, I knew this was a crummy nest. I put the egg back anyway and hoped for the best.
Because I’m rarely content to hope for the best, I was soon launching a plan to protect the nest from climbing predators. I needed to get some sort of predator baffle around the tree’s trunk. I didn’t stop to wonder how the jay might fare without this intervention; I just forged ahead with my plan. That perfect egg, the vision of the bird growing within it, had set me on a crusade.
Early the next morning, the jay’s tail was still protruding over the nest rim, so I took off for a Home Depot thirty miles away, coming home with four long rectangular “lawn chutes” made of lightweight corrugated plastic. My idea was to construct a slick barrier to any climbing predator. I was kneeling beneath the maple, wrestling the chutes into place around the tree’s curvy trunk, when I saw some tiny eggshell fragments in a little pile in the grass, right where I’d found the egg yesterday. They were sticky with albumen. The little pile of shards told me that the deed was most likely done by a chipmunk who had climbed the tree, stuffed the egg in a cheek pouch, then climbed down to feast in the grass. Rats, rats, rats. Or: chipmunks, chipmunks, chipmunks. They are not the adorable sprites their appearance would have you believe. They’re bloodthirsty and hell on birds and their nests.
The incubating jay was nowhere to be seen. I pulled out the stepladder and climbed up to see if I could find any more clues. There, teetering on the edge of the nest, was a lone egg, stone cold. I knew the chipmunk would come back for it, and I couldn’t bear the thought. I picked it up and climbed back down the ladder.