Jemima the blue jay is clever. After all, she’s a corvid, belonging to a family of birds that are known for their intelligence. Yet she’ll never know just how famous she is, and that her story of survival is being read by bird lovers around the world.
“Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay” by Julie Zickefoose tells the true story of this orphaned bird through engaging prose, beautiful watercolor paintings and photographs. Released in September by Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book is the perfect gift for any animal enthusiast, especially those interested in wildlife rehabilitation.
“I hope what [readers] bring away is a greater respect and appreciation for the capacity of birds, the amazing abilities of birds,” said Zickefoose in a recent interview with the BDN. “Birds aren’t just little automatons. They’re thinking beings.”
In addition to being an author and artist, Zickefoose is an experienced wildlife rehabilitator. From her home in southeast Ohio, she raises orphaned and injured birds. She also documents changes in the natural world on her property, keeping an eye on resident bobcats, deer and other wild animals.
“The things you can learn about a creature by living with it and bringing it up is limitless,” Zickefoose said. “Being its mama is a potent way to learn.”
Drawing on her personal experiences with wildlife, Zickefoose has written and illustrated five books to date. In addition to “Saving Jemima,” her books are “Natural Gardening for Birds,” “Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods,” “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds” and “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest.”
Countless birds flit throughout her writing and artwork, but Jemima is the only bird that Zickefoose has devoted an entire book to. She said it’s because the young blue jay left such an impression on her and her family.
“She had just a remarkable mind,” Zickefoose said. “She was social and intelligent. I could have written a nice little book about any number of birds, but this one really wound her way into my psyche and my life.”
Blue jays belong to the corvid family, which also includes ravens, crows and mockingbirds. These species are among the most intelligent birds to be studied, and they have complex social groups.
Starving and sick, Jemima was just a baby bird when she was brought to Zickefoose for rehabilitation. A bundle of soft gray-blue feathers, the jay could fit in the palm of a hand. Throughout the spring and into the summer, Zickefoose and her family cared for the bird, and in the process, the corvid infiltrated their home, forming an odd relationship with the family dog.
Though Jemima’s story is ultimately a happy one, it’s not without heart-wrenching moments. In the world of wildlife rehabilitation, some creatures don’t survive. And for those that do, releasing them into the wild — which is always the ultimate goal — can be difficult.
“It’s not a pet,” Zickefoose said. “That was the delicate line I was on with this bird because my intent was always to return her to the wild. I needed to give her all the skills she needed to make it out there.”
If you’re interested in helping orphaned and injured wild birds but don’t have the knowledge, resources or required licensing, Zickefoose suggests visiting a local wildlife rehabilitation center and volunteering.
In Maine, Avian Haven in Freedom is well-known for their work in rehabilitating wild birds, and Birdsacre in Ellsworth is home to permanently injured birds that are unable to survive in the wild. Other wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Maine are listed on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website.
“It’s a really good way to get started, and if you’re really good at it, they may make you a sub-permittee,” she said.
Zickefoose also suggests writing observations of nature in a daily journal, and drawing nature as a way to connect with it and learn more about it.
“Draw what you see, not from photos,” she said. “Draw it from life. When you observe something that closely, you kind of fall in love with it and you form a connection to it that’s beyond words.”
The 272-page book retails at $25 for hardcover and features 20 full-page paintings by Zickefoose, as well as dozens of color photos. Signed copies can be purchased at redstartbirding.com. The book is available where books are sold.
To learn about upcoming book signings and talks by Zickefoose, visit the events page on her blog at juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.