Bobcat. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alan Vernon.

Bobcat. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alan Vernon.

It’s been a strange week and for a good chunk of it I’ve had to wrestle with a lot of fear, mostly around the fact that my life looks completely different from what it was last year, and I mean completely. —A good thing, but I’m not playing it safe right now, particularly with regard to my career. I have shifted from a very lucrative job into things that are closer to my heart, and while my intuition tells me very clearly and quietly that I am in the right place, my survivor instinct is screaming bloody murder, and needs something to happen now.

I’m better about pushing through the fear now. I can feel myself fumbling for the way out of my fear even while I’m stuck in the middle of it. It is really like trying to find your way in a dark room, bumping and scraping along and trying not to trip over something and break your neck—knowing that the light switch is there somewhere, you just have to find it. And you will.

Also now when I am stricken by this fear I am still able to keep myself open to the outside world, not switch off like a robot beeping and blinking  down into dumb oblivion—which is what it used to feel like sometimes.

Because I managed to wedge the door open a crack to my senses and my soul, I saw two amazing things in my backyard this week. The first is that I saw a bobcat loitering in my backyard. I spotted him the moment he had taken a drink from a bird bath I have back there. He angled his head up toward the sky and the fur on his throat undulated as the water slid down his gullet. Then he shook his head, sated I guess, and looked around the yard, like, What have we got here?

The status of bobcats in the United States is varied and in my research I can’t even get a clear idea of what it is in California. But they are protected in a limited fashion and just last year a law was passed to prevent their trapping near Joshua Tree National Park—trappers were skulking at the edges of the park (where the bobcats are protected) and luring the bobcats out to kill them for their fur. Most of the research I’ve read says they are stable in California, endangered in other states.

The bobcat figures in Native American mythology, and if you take in the broader mythology of their cousin the lynx, the pool of otherworldly meanings gets very deep indeed. In general the creature is associated with silence, patience, and wisdom. The bobcat is the keeper of knowledge and the guardian of secrets, but he keeps this knowledge to himself.

I have lived in the hills of Hollywood since 2005, and many forms of wildlife are common—deer, coyotes, owls, raccoons, and on—but this is the first bobcat I’ve seen anywhere in California. My best description of them is that they are “a cat-plus”—they look very much like a tabby house cat— tabbies themselves looking like mini-tigers. But bobcats have extra down-turning flares of fur at their jowls… and they’re big. Like “Uh-oh, Fluffy is eating people” big. And of course bobcats are recognizable by their stubby tails—the one in my backyard didn’t show me his until the very end of his visit, when he jumped up on the fence ringing my property and slunk back into the trees.

Photo from Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons,docentjoyce.

Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons,docentjoyce.

If that was the high point in my backyard entertainment this week, the low pointor the heart-sinking point—was the day after the bobcat sighting, as I was on my way to refill the bird feeders. As soon as I stepped out into the backyard I saw a puff of feathers flying up in the air. It was like seeing a puff of smoke and listening for the report of the gun, looking around for the sniper.

The sniper was a Western Scrub-Jay, one of at least a pair if not three or four that visit my feeder on a regular basis. I like them because of their royal blue-and-white coloring, like they’re flag bearers for some Nordic country. I also like them because as a kid growing up in Massachusetts I loved watching the northeast blue jays—they were blustery, noisy, with arrowhead-shaped crowns that would fan out like peacock feathers when they got agitated.

The scrub-jay doesn’t have this crown, his head is round, but the one in my backyard was agitated—at me. Because I had just walked in on his attempted assassination of a sparrow.


Western Scrub-Jay. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Minette Layne.

The jay squawked at me and I actually turned around, thinking he must be talking to someone behind me. But no, he was telling me to mind my own business, and as I watched he swooped from the hand railing that leads to my upper deck to the wounded sparrow slumped in the grass—which I hadn’t seen at first.

The jay pecked at the sparrow, then flew back to the railing to squawk at me some more. Go away! I’m trying to kill this pipsqueak bird here.

photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alvesgaspar.

Sparrow. Photo from Wikipedia Creative Commons, Alvesgaspar.

Look, I know animals kill each other for their own reasons—most of those reasons being: I’m hungry. In the Scrub-Jay’s case, they’ll attack other birds rarely, but it does happen.

I hate seeing any creature killed though, especially anything that is weaker or defenseless. This sparrow was much smaller and seemed to be hurt pretty bad.

So I have the battle in my soul of do I help the bird or do I keep my stupid human mitts off this situation—because as a rule we humans can’t seem to keep our mitts off of anything—that’s why so many animals are suffering.

The jay is not weighted down from any similar inner turmoil. He swoops in and scoops up the sparrow and tries to fly off with him. I guess the sparrow is heavy for him though, because he drops the sparrow near my neighbor’s back door—plunk. He’s only managed to carry him about fifteen feet—and the bullying scrub-jay is perched on the roof staring at the sparrow, staring at me, staring at the sparrow…

I take a few steps and the jay dives down at the sparrow again, and this is the moment that pierced me, that really just got me: the sparrow’s head buried in the dirt, flapping one wing weakly up behind him at the jay stabbing him in the back with his beak… then as the jay flew away again, seeing the sparrow quivering, moving, trying to move… trying to crawl away from his fear and pain… no different from all the images I’ve seen over the years of dying humans in wars or genocides or accidents… the last moment, the last embrace of the earth, the last plea for help from the dying spirit.

I went back in the house, ostensibly to retrieve the scoop for the bird seed. I still couldn’t decide whether to interfere or not. I felt terrible. I felt like I was trying to create a sanctuary for the birds and instead I had built a gladiator arena.

The ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyph of the sparrow. The meaning was “small”, “narrow”, or “bad.” In the Bible, the sparrow represents God’s acknowledgment of minor or seemingly insignificant creatures.

When I came out of the house the jay and the sparrow were gone. Just a few wispy feathers hanging in the air.


  1. i’m sure your path is headed in the right direction if your heart led you there. as for the wildlife, i think it is a gift from the universe right now, aimed at keeping you away from your fears and focusing on the bigger world around you. best, ) beth

  2. We have bobcats in our backyard on an irregular basis–about 3-4 times a year. I’m in Southern CA–Laguna Hills. We’re off a horse trail, but in the midst of a housing development. They are amazing creatures. Large cat sized with an intensity and energy I don’t often see in a cat. Beautiful.

  3. In just those few paragraphs, you took me on that emotional roller coaster ride with you. You are truly an amazing writer! Bobcats are beautiful creatures. Living in Arizona, I crossed the path of interesting and fun wildlife. In Colorado, it is the same thing. Have the basic coyotes, rabbits, and such, but one night as I was coming home, I turned into one end of my neighborhood just in time to see a rather large mule deer cross the street in front of me. I followed behind him for a while and just watched in awe of the beauty of that creature. I also love heading up into the Rocky Mountains to go elk watching. So much beauty around us that we sometimes forget to pay attention to. Thanks for sharing, Mike!

  4. Thanks for the comments, Lisa. Sounds like you live and have lived in some great places to see wildlife. I think part of it is just tuning in and not being in tunnel vision with our own crap. The Rocky Mountains I bet are breathtaking.

  5. Man, if a jay or any bird of prey is attacking something, he has unspoken Jay/Prey Rights. I have no business interfering with that stuff. Every single time I have attempted to interfere, I have regretted it. Let’s keep our human rights of equality and mercy limited to humans. We should treat animals with kindness and respect, knowing that the wild kingdom has its own system. What we perceive as “evil” or “selfish” in a bird is really us tacking on a moral problem where there is none.

    • Yes, I agree, and I did not interfere. I did not ascribe any qualities of “evilness” or “selfishness” to the blue jay, either. I was just writing about my own human reaction in confronting an act that I did not really understand in the animal world–and I realize that it’s not my job to understand, and that’s okay. Thanks for reading and the comment.

  6. Michael ~

    I hand feed up to 30 Jay Spirits several times per day at my home in Southern Oregon. 75% of the Jays I feed are Western Scrub Jays. Did you know that they are considered at the upper-levels of intelligence in comparison with/to non-human animals? Their language is highly complex, they have unbelievably sharp reasoning and memory capabilities and are believed to empathize.

    Western Scrub Jays will actually hold a funeral of sorts, over the bodies of those past on to the ‘nother places. I’ve seen this personally. When the body of a Jay is found by another, the living Jay begins to screech hysterically. The Jays from nearby will fly to the spot, congregate and wail and mourn for up to 30 minutes. Then, as a group they will stop. All will become quiet and the Jays disperse and continue on with life at hand. There are many lessons to be learned in studying the behavior of wildlife. The Scrub Jays teach me the importance of honoring that which is now past as well as the importance of focusing on the now and moving forward.

    Note: Scientists who have studied Scrub Jay funerals, speculate that the birds only do this as a means to warn others of a potential predator nearby, but I have studied their behavior closely. At least once per week, while I’m feeding them, one of the guard-Jays makes a distinct screech. All of the Jays immediately fall silent and vanish into the bushes and shrubs. I immediately know that when I look up, I will see a hawk circling above. This is true 100% of the time. But the funeral behaviors never involve a hawk. The jays will hold the funeral, even if the dead jay died of natural causes. So much for science as the end-all to knowledge.

    ~ Gerean for “The Animal Spirits”

    • Hi Gerean,
      Thank you for sharing all that. That is great information and wisdom. And you hand feed them–wow. I definitely have a new appreciation for them. Generally one thing I noticed is that the Jays take precedence over all other birds–all the others will bow away if they’re visiting my feeders. Except for the hawks–which I’ve seen a few times myself. And the bobcat! Anyway, thanks for the insight.

  7. Michael ~ I’ve actually seen them attack a domesticated cat who was venturing too close to their nest. If you decide to try to hand-feed them it takes a bit of an investment in time. I don’t use bird feeders. They only get fed when I come out to feed them. The minute I walk outside the special Jay-call rings out and the Jays start flying in from all around. They even know my car…when I pull into our street, they will begin to fly by my car window to the feeding site and as I open the car door, a number of them will sweep inches from my head, chattering away excitedly.

    I have an elderly friend who feeds and studies the Jays all-day-long. If he leaves his window open, the Scrub Jays will fly right into his home, perch on the furniture and squawk until he gives them peanuts. He told me that he trained them to sit on his hand while eating by filling a surgical glove with sand and placing the peanuts in the palm of the glove. It doesn’t take long for them to start taking the peanuts from the glove. Once they start doing this, he puts the glove on top of his palm…when they begin to take nuts that way, he takes the glove away and feeds them from his hand. I haven’t tried this personally, but I trust it works. ~ Gerean

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