A Wild Bird, A Feral Cat and The Nature of Things


by Tai Moses

One afternoon I watched a feather fall from the sky. It glided through the canopy of oaks on the hillside, fell headlong down the stairway that curved up the hill, and came to rest on the surface of the little meadow in my backyard. I picked up the feather and turned it over, admiring the shimmering bands of blue—indigo, sapphire, and cobalt. It was the feather of a Steller’s blue jay. I held the feather up to the sun and the blue turned a drab gray. The blue of a jay’s feather is not really blue at all; it’s a trick of the light, created when the light enters the feather.

I aimed my binoculars up the hill, and high above the staircase I spotted a Steller’s jay sitting in the dirt, just sitting there. Her uncharacteristic stillness alarmed me. Steller’s jays are active, boisterous birds, always in motion, busy and bossy. I watched the jay, waiting for her to fly away. When she finally made her move, it was immediately apparent that she could not fly. She got to her feet, hopped forward, then tumbled head over heels. She slid a few feet down the hill before she regained her balance. She made another hop and slid again. The bird seemed determined to get down the hill. I watched her agonizing descent, wondering where she was going. Finally the crippled jay made it to the bottom of the hill and flopped over the wall down onto the flat meadow. She rested there a few moments, and then she hopped up onto the rim of the birdbath and took a long, deep, drink of water.

The birdbath had been her destination all along. That’s why she sat still for so long at the top of the hill: she was mapping out her route so she would land in the right place. The thirsty jay drank for a long time, perched on the rim of the birdbath, gulping water. And then, despite myself, I thought of Big Gray.

Big Gray was a very wild feral cat who once lived in the neighborhood. One day he disappeared, as ferals tend to do. I helped my neighbor look for him—she had been feeding him and his brother for several years and was worried when he disappeared—but we couldn’t find him anywhere. A week later, I was walking up my front steps when I heard a rustle in the shrubbery.

It was Big Gray. He was still alive, but injured and unable to move. I ran inside, got a bowl of water, hurried back and held it next to his head. This wild cat who had never let a human get closer than fifteen feet lifted his head and lapped at the water until he couldn’t reach the bottom of the bowl. I refilled the bowl, let him drink his fill. Then I went and found a box and carefully lifted him and placed him inside. I was a little afraid he would try to bite me when I picked him up, but he didn’t object at all. He just looked at me in confusion, as if this was all a strange dream that was not really happening to him. It was terrible to see Big Gray in such a state: he had always been the proudest and wildest of the neighborhood ferals.

I drove him to the clinic, where the veterinarian told me that Big Gray had a crushed spine and would never be able to walk again. It was time to let him go. She inserted an IV
in his front leg and injected a solution of pentobarbital, and within seconds Big Gray had closed his eyes and all his pain was gone. His last breath was scarcely a sigh. Euthanasia is Greek for good death. It truly is a merciful death.

I try hard not to think about Big Gray, lying there day after day concealed in the shrubbery, unable to move while his thirst grew more and more intolerable. Big Gray represents so many things I cannot bear: nature’s indifference to suffering, my own ineffectiveness, my hubris. Big Gray had crawled away to die in private, the way wild animals do. And in the wild, dying can take a long time.


The jay had finished drinking. She sprang down onto the grass and hopped across the meadow toward the bushes. She might be able to make another trip or two back to the birdbath, but soon she would grow too weak to hop. It was growing dark. The crippled bird would make easy prey for a cat or a raccoon, or she would suffer from thirst and die a slow and excruciating death. I wondered what to do. A broken wing could sometimes be mended, and the jay had no other wounds I could see. I decided I would take her to the native-bird rescue group first thing in the morning. They would fix her wing and then I could release her back into the garden.

The bird had hopped over to a corner near the wall, where I was able to catch her quite easily. I put her in a small cat carrier, covered the carrier with a cloth and put it in a warm, quiet room. I glanced at her one last time before I shut the door to the room. She looked much the way she had when I first spotted her at the top of the staircase: sitting very still, as if in thought. But when I went to check on her the next morning, the jay was lying on her side, her dark crest collapsed. In death, her dazzling plumage had grown dull, as if her blues—her indigo, her sapphire, her cobalt—had dimmed along with her life.

I sat down on the floor next to the cat carrier. Had it been a mistake to capture her? Maybe I should have left her alone in the meadow. Perhaps the jay had some other, invisible wound. I had no idea what I had done wrong, or even if I had done anything wrong. I felt futility settle around me like a great, sticky net. I would never know, just as I had never known how Big Gray sustained his mortal injury. So often we blunder in the dark, not sure if we are helping animals or harming them, while the truth remains as elusive and curtained as the heart of a wild bird.

I buried the Steller’s jay in the tangled shade of the clematis vine. Her body would decompose and become food for worms, and in turn the worms would die and become part of the soil and nurture new life. I find these thoughts consoling. There are no beginnings or endings for any of us, only a ceaseless cycle of growth and decay, rot and renewal. Every living thing in our world exists somewhere on this continuum of transformation. “Nothing is lost,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes. “If we don’t have this form, we have another form. If we don’t have the cloud, we have the rain. If we don’t have the rain, we have the tea.” I patted down the soil and atop the jay's grave I stuck a feather, a blue feather that wasn’t really blue at all, to mark the spot.

Excerpted from Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us (2014) by Tai Moses, with illustrations by Dave Buchen. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, This material may not be repurposed without written permission from Parallax Press.

About The Author: Tai Moses has edited alternative newsweeklies in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Silicon Valley, and she is the former senior editor of AlterNet, an online progressive news magazine. She currently lives in Oakland, Calif. but plans to relocate to Santa Cruz in the summer of 2014.

Tai Moses will read from Zooburbia at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, May 13 at 7pm.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson/