Life Overlooked: The Western Scrub Jay

““Life Overlooked” refers to the humanistic goal of “overlooking” or shepherding animals and other life as well as the ways in which non-human species and human relationships with them are often overlooked or ignored…The goal of this project is to utilize the scientific and cultural knowledge of everyday people to create a data bank and place-based map about non-human animals and plants in the US, Canada, and Mexico as we enter an era of mass extinction.” (Life Overlooked website)

Below, you will find my transmedial journal on the western scrub jay, a microcosm of the aforementioned Life OverlookedI chose the western scrub jay for a number of reasons, but mainly because I’ve been going through magpie-withdrawal. It’s been almost a year since I moved from Missoula, Montana back home to the deeper heart of the Cascadian bioregion (though Eugene, OR is much further south than my previous home of Bellingham, WA). Though bike commuting in white-out conditions in the middle of  Montana’s winters was less than thrilling, I still have affection for its scapular yellow hills, the summer storms tumbling down the Rockies. And there are people I miss. But I found an animal-emptiness in me after the move, too: magpies.

I miss their intermittent raaks and rr-e-e-e-e, their sudden scolding paroxysms, the stutter-flight of the juveniles, the charged curiosity of their hop and head-tilt as they watch. There’s nothing like being watched by a magpie. It’s a frustrated fondness I have for them–to live in such close, but parallel proximity with something so obviously alive. I always felt…on the verge in their presence, close to something pivotal and cosmic and comic, but ultimately un-grippable.

And then I moved back and the magpies were gone. Eugene has crows, of course. And I like crows, I grew up around them–yet they aren’t the same. Colder, a bit more disdainful. But, as I soon found, Eugene also has scrub jays. I find them more crotchety than magpies, but they make me smile in the same way those other corvids do.

There’s a number of scrub jays that hang around my house, so I decided this bird journal (below) might best capture my evolving, corvic thoughts via notes taken from my garden-observatory. With the help of research, what I have here is, in its (probably) final iteration, a chronologically paced study that combines observation, poetry, sketches and scientific notes to craft a nuanced (though admittedly heavily etic) gloss of the western scrub jay.

Life Overlooked_Scrub Jay_1

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 1

In the Garden:

I gardened (Brassicas: cabbage, kale, nasturtiums), the scrub jays heckled. As is their wont. They pestered me from the neighbor’s maple tree that overlooks our garden. They also seemed to enjoy the plum tree on the other side of our yard, by the pea shoots and the clothesline. However, the garden and its gardener (me) are too far from the plum tree for their taunting to be very effective…

Scientific Notes:

Birds in the the corvid family (like the western scrub jay) can be found worldwide and range from crows to ravens to Clark’s nutcrackers (Peterson 284 – 285). The western scrub jay is a polytypic species composed of the following groups: californica, woodhouseii and sumichrasti (Delaney, online abstract). This particular Life Overlooked project focuses on the western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) as they inhabit the region in which this project was conducted.

The western scrub jay’s coloration is more vibrant than some of its other brethren: brown-backed, white-throated and blue-tailed, -winged, and -headed (Peterson 284). Its crestless and smooth-arched head differentiates it from other jays such as the blue or Steller’s. The western scrub jay is energetic and loquacious (it has around twenty kinds of calls), with a tendency for trickery. (Cornell)

Sounds of their calls can be found here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 2

A Brief Thought:

There seems to be some confusion between the blue jay and the western scrub jay. My assumption is that people see a blue-feathered bird and assume it’s a blue jay. It’s a simple name, after all, with a simple meaning: a jay that is blue. Of all the North American birds that are blue, ‘blue jay’ seems (to me) to be the shortest and simplest–maybe it’s easier to recall than the others and has thus infiltrated our lexicon as a catch-all for cerulean birds. I’ve made the same mistake myself–I grew up calling the Steller’s jay a blue jay, despite the protestations of my father (an avid birder and former wildlife biologist).

Life Overlooked_Scrub Jay_scrub and blue

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 3

Scientific Notes (Habitat):

Life overlooked_scrub jay_habitat

Western scrub jays make their home in a variety of places, ranging from parklands, regions of oak and oak-pine, as well as pinion-juniper, to riparian woodlands and residential areas (Peterson, 284). Geographically, they can be found in the far west of North America, most especially southern Mexico to northern Oregon, the west coast to central Texas (in the U.S.) (Delaney, abstract).

In the Garden:

The jays’ trees of choice in my own locale (that being the garden in which I conducted my journaling) were a plum tree and a honey locust.

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 4

In the Garden:

My housemate replanted the carrots for the third time. After the first planting, the seedlings were plucked straight from the ground. The second sowing she pinned them in with row cover, but they, too, soon disappeared–despite the fact that the row cover hadn’t been disturbed. My housemate suspects the subterranean slugs that live in our raised beds, which is probably the likeliest explanation. Still, I wouldn’t put it past the scrub jays to have unpinned the row cover, scarfed down the carrot seedlings and meticulously rearranged the cover so that none of us would be the wiser. But I’m onto them!

Life Overlooked_scrub jay_carrots

Scientific Notes (Food and Behavior):

Scrub jays will eat most anything (Peterson 284), but seem to love nuts in shells the best. Scrub jays often cache their food, which could be one reason for their shelled-nut propensity (due to the shells’ storage qualities). At bird feeders, they seem to prefer peanuts, bird puddings, seeds and peanut butter mixes.

The intelligence of scrub jays can be witnessed in their animal-to-animal interactions and the cunning ways in which they procure food. House cats and chickens have both suffered from their schemings. Scrub jays have been seen sneak-pecking felines, while in another instance a chicken’s squawking created an unwitting, yet advantageous food source:

“One unfortunate domestic hen that gave a distinctive cackle before laying each of her eggs unwittingly trained Scrub-Jays to come pilfer her nest whenever they heard the tell-tale call.”

(Dunn, 113)

And one last glimpse of their hungry ingenuity:

“…wild scrub jays have been known to select strong forked branches and use them as a vise for holding hard-to-crack nuts (Savage, 110).”

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 5

A Poem*:

Funerary Limerick for a Scrub Jay (as told by a raven)

Drunk on wine of felled plums, my first glimpse
of your wings of blue, smoky your dance.
Little corvid, the sway
of your nebsome twiggy legs
held my ravenous hunger entranced.

We were kin, you and I, to the core
of our vintage blood coded in doors:
open beaks, closing claws
open heart, shuttered maws.
I was key, you were lock, I was beak, you were soft.

*Note: I actually wrote another poem before the limerick above. However, I liked it well enough that I’m going to make an attempt at publication. If it’s lucky enough to find a home, I’ll be sure to add a link to it here.

Scientific Notes (Behavior, continued):

Scrub jays are monogamous breeders and typically remain in pairs through the year, though they can occasionally be observed flocking in the winter, when the weather is cold or food is in short supply (Zimmer, 233 – 234). Before breeding, young Western scrub jays band with conspecifics, often mingling with Mexican or Steller’s jays (Dunn, 112).

Another interesting behavioral trait of the western scrub jay is the ‘funerals’ they hold for dead conspecifics, characterized by ‘cacophanous aggregations’ of the birds.’ All of this was illustrated in an experiment supported by the University of California Davis:

“Discovery of a dead conspecific elicits vocalizations that are effective at attracting conspecifics, which then also vocalize, thereby resulting in a cacophonous aggregation. Presentations of prostrate dead conspecifics and predator mounts elicited aggregations and hundreds of long-range communication vocalizations, while novel objects did not.”

(Iglesias)

Read an article and watch a related video here.

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

BIRD JOURNAL, DAY 6

Scrub jays in the media:

Scrub jays have a much smaller media presence compared to other members of their corvic brethren, such as the magpie or raven. However, the birds haven’t been completely disregarded–they appear in poems and a number of songs (though the type of scrub jay isn’t necessarily specified). With that in mind, I’ll settle this last day of the bird journal with a couple medial glimpses of scrub jays.

POETRY:

These interchanges of cellular ambrosia,
Awake this morning from a nightmare of dirty flooding
To find the blues and grays of the scrub jay
Swooping their lights through dawn’s green magnifications,
Its body of sky and water inside our own?

(From Roy Dean Doughty’s “Baptismal Voyage.” Click here to read and listen to the poem.)

MUSIC:

“Mrs. Kate” Carpenter’s “Hey Little Scrub Jay” from Florida Family Folksongs

Life Overlooked_Scrubjay_egg

CITATIONS:

Click here.

Blood, Bathtub (Skyglass extra)

Right after my parents died, I met a girl. Her name was Sylvan—a name she chose for herself, she told me. She had silver hair, buzzed up close to the skull. Her ears were beautiful. Like her name, they weren’t her first. She’d cut off her old ones and bought herself a new pair, green pewter like grass froze by a first frost, with tiny flowers growing in their folds.

We met at a show. I don’t remember who was playing, didn’t care—that night, I was just there for the noise. The press. Something to keep me from drifting apart. If my parents hadn’t been freshly dead, I doubt I would have gone home with her that night. I don’t remember much of what happened at her place, but my bandmates were there; my singer Devin told me what happened. Or maybe I do remember, and it’s just easier to pretend the memories are someone else’s:

Sylvan crawled a hand under my shirt, to my spine. She turned me into a glove-puppet that jerked to her every command. When she invited me home—along with everyone at the show—I obeyed. I’m not sure I believe any of this; I’m human, not robot. Despite the mechanization of my day-in day-out. And she didn’t make me do anything. She was nice. I liked her. But Devin’s fond of stories.

There’s one thing I remember on my own: at Sylvan’s place, Fallin played on the exear all night long, so I left my headphones off.

And another memory, less important, but still significant because I claim the recall as my own:

After showing me some Blowup I didn’t really understand, Sylvan and I pulled at our clothes and tried to have sex. Maybe it was the drinking, maybe it was death still crawling beneath my skin (worms wanting out), but I couldn’t get hard for her. She laughed at me (not meanly), I apologized and stumbled into the bathroom, didn’t turn on the light, didn’t close the door, pissed in the toilet. Crawled in the bathtub, threw up. One, two, three times. Next, maybe I felt something cold on my forehead. A bottle. More alcohol. Exactly what I didn’t need, exactly what I wanted– For the cold, not the blur and buzz. (Right.) I took it without looking, kept it to my forehead. Glanced up and to the side. Some tall guy with wide shoulders and dark skin, pale orange hair snarling from his scalp down to his shoulder blades. (His name came later: Marko.) He lit a candle beside the tub. I think I remember being glad for the lack of electric light.

He sat in the tub with me, maybe even in my vomit. He was careful not to let us touch. He asked me what was wrong. I was quiet for a long time, but eventually gave him an answer: everything at home smelled like blood, but that was normal. Mom butchered goats. She used their skin to make drums.

The rest of the answer: everything was silent. There was blood in the air because there so much in the bed it had to go somewhere. None of it was goat’s blood. I told the guy how I ripped up the mattress just to see how far it went down.

Blood on knives. Blood gluing bodies together at the rhizome of their tangled fingers. Blood in the bathroom and on the door to the fridge. I still don’t know why.

I told my boots and the bathtub how I wanted to sleep forever, but not die—how pretending there was a difference was my pretense at weathering.

Then Marko made contact. Quick, just his fingertips against the back of my hand (which was hidden in my sleeve, cuff bunched anxiously in my grip). Then he said, please don’t die. Like my death might actually do damage. Though he’d never met me. Stupid.

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If you enjoyed the words above, consider checking out the rest of the novel (mine), Skyglass, which is currently being serialized over at Sparkler Monthly.

2014 Publishing Retrospect

Instead of bombarding people with foxes, as I have been recently, here’s a thing far less exciting and only half as fluffy, but always rather ravenous: me. My words. (If you blow-dried my hair, I might be able to compete with a fox tail.)

Things that got published:

Poetry:

Ekphrastic 22/The Drowning Girl (Strange Horizons, February)

Short Fiction:

Cinderseed (Cherry Bomb, March)
The Seaweed and the Wormhole (Shimmer, Issue 20)

Novels:

Skyglass (Sparkler Monthly serialization, ongoing)
+Chapter 1
+Chapter 2
+Chapter 3
+Chapter 4
+Chapter 5
+Chapter 6
+Chapter 7

Modest, but I feel good about it. Here’s hoping 2015 will be even stronger.

Awkward Sex Scene (Skyglass extra)

Tell me something distracting, Phoenix said.

Against my better judgment, I did:

My first kiss was drunken, and numb from the smokeless–the cold winter cigarette the girl and I were sharing. We kissed at the base of a stage. Her name was Rish. She had me up against a discarded half-stack, mouth on mine, hands flat against my ribcage, like she was trying to push me away even as we kissed. Like she was some sort of oracle.

I hadn’t expected the kiss. I was nineteen. It was my first and even though I liked her, I hadn’t really considered the possibility. But then it happened and I was half-drunk, startled–what was I supposed to do? Complain about her mouth? On mine? No, I kissed her back. Probably badly, but at the time she didn’t care. Or maybe she did and was just too nice to say.

Still, we kissed, and it was my first, and she was starbright, but I think the only reason I remember her mouth is because I could feel the music vibrate in her teeth. Months later, when I thought I was ready, we tried having sex. On several occasions. Once, we were in her yurt. It was on a roof so high up you could bury you face in the green sky. The tent was like a lung with a lantern inside; red cloth walls lit up by golden light.

We started…kissing, and…you know. When we’d lost all our clothes, she stopped. She looked at me, her stare all terrifying, and said, you’re weird. I asked why; she said I watched her eyes too much, her body not enough.

I said, but I like your eyes.

That didn’t matter, she didn’t care—she wanted me looking other places, touching other parts. She wanted my mouth on her breasts, and—just. No. They were soft and fragile and sweaty. I didn’t like it, but I wanted her to feel good.

Then she turned off the music that was playing and said, I want to hear you, just you. But the music had been the only thing holding me together. I think I actually moaned at the loss. I went soft at the loss, and she was like, really? and turned away, and then I couldn’t look at her any longer because I knew I’d screwed up. She needed someone human, and what was I? I’m like a tree, only I run on music instead of sun.

After I failed, I went outside because Rish asked me to. I stood in the dripping mist with my head in the green sky’s leaves. It was closest enough to do that. I was glad for the contact—cold, ragged, indistinct. I was choking. I forced air down my throat. It tasted of trees. Calmed me. I would try harder next time. I told myself, you will learn want, you will learn desire, you will learn lust.

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If you enjoyed the words above, consider checking out the rest of the novel (mine), Skyglass, which is currently being serialized over at Sparkler Monthly.

Storyfox update!

Updates should be coming more regularly, now that I have a month-ish reprieve from grad school. Here are a couple of ready-at-hand additions to tide the curious over until my next update, which will probably be substantial.

A couple notes:

–I’d like to do a number of interviews to accompany this project, so if there’s anyone out there who you’d like to see interviewed (or if you want to be interviewed) about fox media, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
–Thanks go to Sonya Taaffe and Sharon Goetz; both tipped me off to a number of works this time around.
–I renamed the ‘Interdisciplinary’ section to ‘Transmedia.’ The music section needed some categorical stretching room, so it is now called ‘Audio.’
–An addition of note: I’m especially looking forward to exploring Wuxia the Fox, which looks to have a beguiling story, pleasing art, and an engrossing, inventive cross-discipline narrative framework. You can find it in the aforementioned Transmedia section.

Check out all of STORYFOX: a Database of Vulpine Science Fiction and Fantasy here!

As always, if you have anything to add, you can contact me here and on twitter.

Audio

P.L. Travers
~”The Fox at the Manger” (BBC Radio 4, 1990)

~”The Fox” (traditional ballad)

Comics/Graphic Novels

Minna Sundberg
~”A Redtail’s Dream” (2011-2013)

Film/Television

Volodymyr Kmetyk
~”Mykyta the Fox” (Pershyi Natsionalnyi)

Thomas Funck and Jan Gissberg
~”Kalle Stropp och Grodan Boll på svindlande äventyr” (Charlie Strapp and Froggy Ball Flying High) (Cinemation Industries, 1941)

Räven Boll
~”Made By Räven Boll ” (Räven Boll, 2014)

Children’s Books

P.L. Travers
~”The Fox at the Manger” (Norton, 1962)

Games and Video Games

Alana Joli Abbott
~”The Choice of Kung Fu” (Choice of Games, 2012)

BioWare
~”Jade Empire” (Microsoft Game Studios, 2005)

Nintendo EAD
~”Starfox” (Nintendo, 1993)
~”Ocarina of Time” (Nintendo, 1998)
~”Majora’s Mask” (Nintendo, 2000)

Novels

Garry Kilworth
~The Lantern Fox (Mammoth, 1998)
~Hunter’s Moon (The Foxes of Firstdark) (Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Poems

Lizzy Huitson
~”Rey” (Goblin Fruit, 2014)

Transmedia

Jonathan Bélisle
~”Wuxia the Fox” (2014)

The Night I Slept with Devin (Skyglass extra)

The first night Devin spent at my house, he crawled up from his blankets on the floor and joined me in bed. We’d spent the day making music out in the forest, so he smelled like tree sap and cheese sandwiches (lunch).

Once he made himself comfortable beneath my covers, he snaked his arms around me. I could feel his hipbones against my ass, his face buried between my shoulder blades. I twitched at the contact. I was fourteen; I’d never had anyone in my bed. Which was weird for my age, living as I did–in the Gut, near a community of half-feral elves.

After he finished rubbing his face against my spine, he squirmed up so his mouth was warm on the soft skin behind my ear.

“You want to have sex?” he asked.

I stopped breathing. Part of me wanted to say yes–the part that liked the heat of his skin and our wild songs, but saying yes didn’t seem right. When I told him this, he just smiled, said okay and turned so we were each facing different walls, but fused at our spines.

I don’t think I’ve ever slept better than I did that night.

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If you enjoyed the words above, consider checking out the rest of the novel (mine), Skyglass, which is currently being serialized over at Sparkler Monthly.

Storyfox update! (many foxes)

Meant to get this up last week, and then grad school happened. Lots of good stuff to check out, including a couple fox-related projects that are a bit off-the-beaten-path, which lead me to create a new section: Interdisciplinary Projects (you’ll find the additions to that section at the bottom of this page, as well as on the main database page). One of those projects was facerig‘s Cathy the Red Fox which you should check out just…because. It’s neat, I suppose, but…I’m also not quite sure what to think of it. Check it out for yourself. Personally, I found it interesting in tandem with my thesis. Sexualized foxes, you are everywhere.

Thanks this week go to Sonya Taaffe. You can find other collectors of fox-stories here.

Check out all of STORYFOX: a Database of Vulpine Science Fiction and Fantasy here!

As always, if you have anything to add, you can contact me here and on twitter.

Storyfox update: Games and Video Games

facerig
~“Cathy the Red Fox” (2014)

Storyfox update: Poems

Asunción Alvarez
~”Mr. Fox” (Ideomancer 5.1, 2006)

Margaret Atwood
~”Fox/Fire Song” (Poetry, 1974)

Lisa M. Bradley
~”The Messenger Ensnared” (Polu Texni, 2012)

C.S.E. Cooney
~”The Grand Finale of Mr. Fox” (Papaveria Press, 2011)

Caitlyn Paxson
~”The Tall House of Mr. Fox” (Scheherezade’s Bequest #13, 2011)

Hannah Sanghee Park
~”The Fox Bead in May” (Poetry, 2013)

Janice D. Soderling
~”The Fox” (The Pedestal Magazine #53, 2009)

Ellen Steiber
~”The Fox Wife” (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, AvoNova/William Morrow, 1995)

Storyfox update: Short Fiction

Richard Parks

~”Three Little Foxes” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #105, 2012)
~”The Ghost of Shinoda Forest” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #63, 2011)
~”Fox Tails” (Realms of Fantasy 11.5, 2005)

KZ Morano
~”Kitsune” (Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, 2014)

Anne-Sylvie Salzman
~”Fox into Lady” (Darkscapes, 2013)

Alexandra Seidel
~”A Quest for Fire” (Lackington’s #3, 2014)

Storyfox update: Novels

Christopher Barzak
~The Love We Share Without Knowing (Bantam, 2008)

Irma Chilton
~”String of Time” (Macmillan Education Ltd., 1968)

Richard Parks
~The Heavenly Fox (PS Publishing, 2011)

Ellen Steiber
~Shadow of the Fox (Random House, 1994)

Storyfox update: Comics/Graphic Novels

Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano
~Sandman: The Dream Hunters (Vertigo, 1999)

Storyfox update: Interdisciplinary Projects

Kate Davies and Emmanuel Vercruysse
~”The Crepuscular” (article here) (LiquidFactory, 2007)

Sylvia Linsteadt
~The Gray Fox Epistles (2013–)