RAAAAAAWK! Angry birds. Birds mad as hell. Birds with a mission no one would keep them from. On a recent afternoon I heard them in my backyard. I pictured birds big and mean. Crows, maybe. Or ravens. Bird like these:
RAAAAAAWK! More birds. Then I heard my girlfriend, Daphne, scream. She screamed again. Then a third time — it was more of a wail. I was in the bedroom. Daphne had gone outside to water the plants and garden. She was accompanied by our cat, Thomas. I pictured something like this:
RAAAAAAWK! Birds still yelling. Daphne still screaming. Suddenly I was in “earthquake time,” when seconds seem to last hours. More bird calls. More human screams. She and Thomas were under attack.
Tangent: What I pictured next is really harsh. So if you don’t want to read about it, skip this paragraph. It was 1992. I saw a huge black bird kill a cat. The bird was the same size as the dark-gray longhaired cat. I was about 23, living in a small lakeside community in Northern California. I was on a morning run, and I saw a commotion in the distance across a busy street. It looked like a big bunch of cardboard and leaves being tossed about in the wind created by the passing cars. Then I saw the horror — the bird spreading and slightly flapping its wings, picking up the cat into the air, and pecking hard into its eyes and head. By the time I got there and could cross the street, the cat was very dead, and the bird was very gone. I was horrified beyond words. Nature had taken its course, and I’d been powerless to stop it. I was too late. I had no idea what to do. I was so shaken, I turned and continued my run. I told no one about it, until now. It’s still very hard to think about.
So on this day, terror filled my heart. I pictured big black birds killing Thomas and attacking Daphne to keep her away while they completed the task. I thought my world was about to change in a most terrible way.
Also: I was naked.
Daphne and I had just returned home from work. I was in the middle of changing clothes — right in the middle of changing clothes. Nudity was irrelevant. I’d have broken down a bank-vault door to get out there. Lack of clothes wouldn’t stop my intervening. I was not about to let nature take its course this time. Daphne and Thomas could have been in the front yard for all I cared, and I’d still have run to them, clothed or not.
I didn’t make it to the backyard. I met Daphne and Thomas in the garage, where they had retreated. I didn’t find a pack of big black birds. Instead, on the garage floor I found something else that was naked, and very vulnerable — a baby scrub jay who had fallen from the nest, sitting on his butt with his legs splayed outward. When I say “baby” I mean adolescent. This bird was as big as his parents but with a pudgy, rounded “baby” form. The bird retained the characteristic large round eyes, short beak, and furry feathers of a youngster.
Baby Bird turned his wide-eyed stare to me. He screamed long and loud — RAAAAAAAAAAAAWK! — as if he wanted me to feed him, or to stop the hellish noise and the attacking cat who’d brought him in from the yard. His parents were outside, a pair of big healthy jays I knew well from recent run-ins. (Scrub jays are mean even on good days.) RAAAAAAWK!
It was a desperate situation.
I had no clothes on.
So I opened the kitchen door, picked up Thomas, put him inside, and shut the door. Cat, secured.
At the same time, Daphne picked up the young bird, who was still screaming but seemingly uninjured. We walked him outside into the aerial bombardment of his parents and put him down. Bird, secured.
We saw another fledgling on the ground outside, hopping about but unable to fly. This seemed like no accident. These birds had not fallen from the nest. This was a training mission, their first. Thomas had walked right into it. So had I. I stood naked in the afternoon heat, with four scrub jays screaming — two of them still strafing Daphne and myself. Quickly we went inside. Humans, secured.
While I got dressed Daphne researched bird behavior online. We were right: This most likely was the youngsters’ first training mission. These birds would not return to the nest. The parents would watch after the two youngsters and help them learn to fly. The process could take as little as two days, we learned, but it could also last as long as two weeks.
Then and there Daphne and I resolved to do all we could to help those birds. I had control of one predator, Thomas. But there were more. Raccoons routinely have parties in our backyard (toppling the bird bath, digging holes, using a side yard as a latrine), so I knew they were a danger as well. We’d do what we could, and with our accommodation, the young birds would learn to fly and grow up.
This time, everyone would live.
Daphne and I risked getting dive-bombed again to put out a shoe box with some paper towels in it, which the birds might use as an ersatz nest. Mama and Papa Bird, however, found something better. In a section of our fence, latticework forms little cubby holes, right under the tree that contained the nest. Mama and Papa kept close watch there, squawking and strafing any mammal who came near.
The next days weren’t easy.
I’ll start by explaining why Thomas is a great cat. He’s active, and he provides remarkable entertainment when he plays. He loves visitors. He doesn’t knock things off counters and dressers. He barfs only about twice a year. Cat hair is such a non-problem in my house that you’d think no cat lived here. His only drawback? He’s a Grade A brat when it comes to food and outdoor privileges.
Daphne and I allow him in the backyard conditionally: during the day, when we’re home, and when the weather is nice. He stays in the yard. He chases bugs, watches birds, sleeps on a wooden chair, and “hides” in vegetation near our garden. But when the cat wants to go out, the cat wants to go out.
Imagine his dismay when we kept him inside on bright sunny days — with baby birds visible from the sliding-glass door as well as the bedroom window.
“FOOD! FOOD! LOOK! THERE’S FOOD! RIGHT THERE, YOU STUPID HUMANS! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR!”
No way. Thomas was an indoor cat until further notice. If we let him out, he’d get Baby Bird No. 1 or No. 2, and in the process Mama and Papa would get him. P&M were so protective, in fact, that even Daphne and I stayed out of the backyard. Each time we stepped out to check the situation:
One or both parents were in our faces, hanging off a gutter or an eye-level tree branch.
These guys were fearless.
After five or six days, it began to seem like we’d never get our yard back. But we were patient — unlike Thomas. For two of the days during this lockdown I worked from home, and I became expert in tuning out the near-constant rrrrrrrOWWWWWW! that Thomas delivered. (“You’ll live,” I kept telling him.)
Then one day, the angry birds were gone. We walked into the backyard without a raaaaaawk. We sat at our patio table for 10 or 15 minutes, just to make sure. Then we went in and came back out later. Then we brought Thomas. All was clear.
We don’t know whether Baby Birds No. 1 and 2 made it. We didn’t see them fly away, but their little cubbies showed no signs of a raccoon raid.
We hope they did make it. I don’t know much about bird behavior, but if the little ones return next year to the same tree and want to start their own families, our backyard is their training ground.
And Thomas? Definitely grounded.
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He’s also associate editor at Catster and Dogster.