Today was the day. As I sipped my rich coffee with thick cream before the sun rose, I decided it was time for Jack to go free. His tail feathers were frayed from his near constant fluttering against the wire mesh of his cage. I did not want them to get so damaged that he would not be able to use them to fly when he left his cage. A part of me did not want Jack to leave, but I knew as a wild bird it would be best if he lived his bird life as he was supposed to, out in the world. He was meant to fly free with others of his own kind.
It was the end of July now, and a hot day in the forecast. I carried Jack and his cage out to the deck where he had spent several days getting used to his surroundings. The two cats stared from the bay window. I had shut their cat door, and their whiskers were out of joint. They loved to be outside. Not only that, they figured a bird in a cage was an easy meal. Not this bird, if there was anything I could do about it.
Jack teetered on his perch as I rested the cage on the deck. He fluttered against the sides. I opened the door. Then I waited nearby. Well, right next to the cage, truth be told. Jack cocked his head at the opening. He edged up and down his branch for several minutes. I began to wonder if he would leave without encouragement from me. Maybe I should shut the door and wait for another time. Maybe he was not ready to leave. “Now, now,” I chided myself. “Quit clinging. Jack has all day to find the opening.” Just as I thought about leaving, Jack burst out of his cage in a flurry of wing beats. He barely cleared a branch from the nearest pine tree. He flew up and up, through the bendy branches of the golden willow. At the top of the tree, he collided with a branch and managed to cling to it.
There was Jack, far above the ground and far away from me. Oh my. What was going to happen to my little bird? I watched him until my neck complained about staring up so long. He stayed there and swiveled his head from side to side and sometimes looked down at me. I was crushed that he did not fly to me, but what did I expect? I had deliberately not allowed us to become that close. Soon, I would find I was wrong.
I went about my day. Every once in a while I checked on Jack. He was still in the top of the golden willow. He fluttered a few branches over, but that was all the farther he went. The day got hot. I began to worry that Jack would get heat stroke. I guess birds can get heat stroke. Jack was used to a more even temperature gradient from spending most of the last two weeks in the house. It was hard to believe he had grown so fast. It had only been 18 days since he had fallen from his nest. Now look where he was!
That evening, Jack was not in the top of the golden willow. After searching as best as I could from the ground, I spied Jack in a pine tree down the driveway. I tried to temp him with his food on a paper plate, but he stayed up high. As night fell, I worried if he would survive the night.
The next morning, I was outside before the sun rose. I looked and listened for Jack everywhere around the house. The cats were disgruntled as they were still shut in the house. I did not see or hear Jack anywhere. I was devastated. He must have not made it through the night. Maybe it had gotten too cool. He might have fallen from his perch and been eaten by something. Or other birds could have attacked him. Birds can be quite territorial. I reined in my imagination. There was nothing I could do about it at the moment. I went about my day with a heavy heart. The memory of Jack’s hungry cheeps and wing flutters wound themselves around me. What a determined little bird he had been.
In the afternoon, I passed by the deck on my way back from the horse corral. Something buzzed past my ear and landed in the tomato bed. It was Jack! He yelled his hungry cheeps at me. Oh my gosh! I flew in the house for his food (kept at the ready) and a paper plate. Jack waited on the deck. When I came around the corner of the house, he flitted back to the tomato bed. I set his plate with the food under the tomato vines, and he hopped right down to snack away. Hungry was an understatement. Jack had several servings of his food. While he ate, I noticed he was missing a patch of feathers from one side of his neck. Must have been an encounter with another bird.
When Jack had stuffed his crop, he flitted around in the tomato plants. He was getting handy at flying. I was proud of my little bird and how he had learned to fly. Instinct is a powerful force, that is for sure.
Now that Jack had re-established our bond, he became quite clingy. It may have been something to do with being out in the whole big world all alone and I was the only thing that was familiar. Several hours after Jack dined under the tomatoes, he heard me inside the house through an open window. He landed on the deck and lingered there. This was an exceptionally bad idea, as someday the cats would once again be outside. Jack on the deck would be easy pickings for their lightening fast claws. As I moved around inside the house, Jack followed around the outside, going from window to window. He either fluttered against the window (much to the delight of the cats who leaped at him), or landed on a perch close to the window. He would cheep at me. If we made eye contact, he fluttered his wings at me and fixed me with one of his deep brown eyes.
Towards evening, I meandered out towards the horse pen. There was Jack! He fluttered down out of a fir tree and flitted along behind me. When I walked from the house to the shop, Jack perched on the portable panels hanging on a rack partway between the house and shop. He for me to come back towards the house, then flew along behind me. Wherever I went outside the next few days, there he was. I had never had a bird follow me around. It was endearing.
How was I going to feed Jack, but keep him from the reaches of the cats? I began resting his paper plate in the branch of a pine tree, which did not work as it flipped to the ground when he landed on it. My boyfriend suggested that we place a small plywood platform in the tree as a “table” for the plate. He fixed one up and fastened it to the tree with twine. Jack figured out in no time at all that was his feeding station. I placed his paper plate on the platform, called him, stepped back, and he hopped over from a nearby branch for his meal.
Next to the doorway to the garage on my house are two bushy cedar trees. I use the garage doorway as my main entrance and exit from the house, as I’ve turned the attached garage into a huge, handy mudroom. First thing in the morning when I stepped out the door, Jack would zip out from the cedar tree, where he had spent the night. He either landed at my feet or on the barbeque grill and would flutter and cheep his hungry cheeps at me. As I walked to his feeding platform, he would fly over and wait for me to put his food on it. I always stepped away after feeding him so as to keep distance between us both. Each day Jack became a little more standoffish and wild. It was good to see, although he was still attached to me.
I limited Jack’s feedings to morning and evening, even though he begged throughout the day. He was hard to resist when he was hungry. As I went about my day, he flew after me and cheeped his hungry cheeps. It tugged at my heartstrings. But, Jack had to learn to feed himself. I was not sure how he was going to accomplish this and worried that without me he would starve.
My friend, Carol, suggested that I quit feeding Jack altogether. Then Jack would have to fend for himself and un-attach from me. Good advice. Jack was impossible for me to ignore completely, especially when he landed on a branch and fluttered and cheeped at me. So my compromise was feeding him only twice a day.
Another few days passed. Jack looked for his twice-daily feedings and flew to his platform when I called him for his meals. He followed me around whenever he saw me outside. He narrowly escaped losing tail feathers to my dog, Rowdy, when he fluttered around me at knee level. Rowdy decided that only he should be allowed near my knees, and snapped at Jack. Jack zipped up on a high branch and peered down at Rowdy from one eye. At least he was beginning to recognize dangers.
My concern for Jack grew as he remained connected to me. What would happen when all the birds flew south for the winter? Jack would freeze if he stayed. What if he did not figure out how to feed himself? I decided Jack needed a huge cage in the living room to spend the winter in. Never mind it was still the first part of August and there was plenty of summer left for Jack to find his footing, or rather, wings in the world. I pestered my patient boyfriend to plan and build the cage. Since he could envision, plan, and build just about anything, I knew he would do a great job. It would go in a corner of the living room in a space about 4 feet by 8 feet. It would be ceiling height; framed in and constructed of a strong wire mesh Jack could not escape from and the cats could not get into. The cage would have a door and a pull out base so I could easily clean it. It would have branch perches for Jack to rest on. It would be the Hilton of birdcages.
My boyfriend and I roared off in the pickup to the local building supply store for materials. Several men manned the counter. My boyfriend slid his list of materials across. The man behind the counter began to make an invoice and check to see that they had everything. Puzzled, he enquired what this was for. I told him the whole story, and why Jack had to live inside for the winter. The clerk’s eyes glazed a bit as the story went on. He did not say anything, but gave my boyfriend a “I feel sorry for you, bud” look. Finally, we had all the pieces and off we went for home. I was excited to have Jack inside for the winter. Throughout the dreary dark days, Jack would sing his sparrow songs. Then I could release him in the spring when all the other sparrows returned. It would work slick as a whistle.
That evening, Jack was nowhere to be seen or heard for his evening meal. I left his food on his platform. In the morning it was gone, so something had eaten it. Jack, I hoped. Even though Jack was once again missing, I put fresh food out and called to him. Suddenly, there he was! And he had another sparrow with him! It hung back, dubious about Jack’s feeding routine. I decided it was a girl sparrow. She was shy and demure. Jack hopped down for his food. I gave his platform lots of space, and soon the other sparrow joined Jack and tried out his breakfast. I did handsprings in my mind. Actually, that’s the place I do handsprings, as I’d kill myself if I tried to do real ones. Jack must have become accepted into the sparrow community if he had a sparrow friend. And the other sparrow would teach Jack how to find his own meals.
After Jack appeared with the girl sparrow, I began to see him around less and less. He began to avoid me when I put his food out, but would eat it when I was not around. I missed interacting with him, but consoled myself that he was fitting into his real place in the world. Soon, I noticed Jack was hanging out with the sparrow flock in the yard. Even though he looked like all the rest, I knew his voice. When I heard him, I would call out, “Jack Sparrow, are you hungryyyyy?” and he would chirp at me. I knew it was him answering.
My boyfriend tried not to look relieved when it became clear he would not have to build the birdcage in the living room. He had held off starting it for several days, most likely in hopes that Jack would re-wild himself. I do tend to overreact sometimes. When I returned the materials to the building supply store, the fellows behind the counter hid their crazy lady thoughts well.
It was the gold light of evening and I had just let the horses out for their end of the day graze. They munched with contentment and swished at flies. As I wandered back through the corral, a flock of sparrows flew past me and landed on the fence rails. I stopped. Was Jack one of them? One last time, I trilled, “Jack Sparrow, are you hungryyyyy?” All of the sparrows flew off except one. It perched there and looked at me. I walked past it, and it flew with me to the next fence. I stopped several feet away from this lone sparrow. It was sleek and healthy. Bright brown eyes glittered. It looked at me out of one lively eye. After what seemed like forever, but must have only been a minute or so, it flew away to join the others. “Bye, Jack,” I whispered.
As the sparrow flew off, I knew it had been Jack. Part of my heart flew along with him. I missed Jack. What a sparrow he was. Even though he had through circumstances become dependent on me for his survival, he had embraced his true nature. His determination to be who he was had never wavered. As I continued on my way back to the house, I felt the piercing absence of a little brown sparrow flitting along with me from branch to branch. And I would forever miss Jack fluttering and cheeping at me.