Thirty years ago we lived in an apartment in Pacific Beach, Calif., a San Diego suburb. It was there I baked batch after batch of cinnamon rolls, trying different kinds of flour, attempting to make an ethereal cinnamon roll that would meet my expectations and approximate the popular cinnamon bun then being sold at malls and airports.
I’d just finished baking a batch. With the pan out of the oven and rolls finally cool enough to sample, I was pulling the outside wreath of dough from the center when an unexpectedly loud squawk sounded as if it came from our small patio.
I stepped outside to see what was going on. Was someone in distress? No, someone was hungry and recognized the smell of baking. I still had the piece of bun in my left hand as I stepped out of the doorway. Before I realized what was happening, a scrub jay swooped past me, deftly grabbed what was left of the roll right out of my hand and flew off to a tall, nearby tree.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I didn’t know it at the time, but that pastry theft was the beginning of me being trained by a bird! This scenario repeated itself almost daily — sometimes a couple of times a day.
The jay wasn’t picky about what was offered, as long as it was some kind of bread. Getting a treat began with landing on the short patio wall and a squawk. I’d whistle back in reply. Eventually I learned that if I held tightly to the offering with my thumb and forefinger, palm open, attempting to slow down the theft, the jay would land on my open palm and stay until finished eating. It didn’t take long to graduate to placing an offering in my open palm for a close and personal experience of bird in hand.
True trust. It was a huge thrill to have a wild creature so willing to be in human contact. Her gender was revealed one spring when she brought six nestlings to the shrubs outside the patio wall, attempting to coax them to take food from me as she had done so many times. No matter how many times she flitted to my hand and back to the shrub, it was a no go.
Our daily ritual continued for almost three years. It didn’t matter who was holding a treat: my husband, neighbors a few doors away, anyone else who was game to have a jay land on their hand and feel claws gently gripping flesh. Everyone was captivated by the experience. We loved every single interaction.
Eventually we decided to move to a larger place across town. The apartment was empty and I’d come back for a last check. When I looked out the glass door, I saw her perched on the patio wall, looking forlornly around. It broke my heart.
I drove away, hoping that the next tenants would welcome and be trained by a semi-tame visitor.
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