Once upon a time, Lex Chase hosted something called Flash Fiction Fridays on her blog. To those invited to participate, she would send a picture, a random sentence, and the encouragement to make of it what we could. “Bird Chatter” came from the following prompt: “Something about him is…off.”
It’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever written (that distinction probably belongs to A Moustache Called Justice) but it’s definitely one of the most fun.
“Something about him is…off.”
“Hmm?” Percy glanced over his shoulder to see who Jerry might be talking about.
Arrayed on the branch behind them were three brothers and four sisters, all with beaks clacking and feathers rustling. It was preening time, which meant gossip time. Nothing like a tidbit of scandal to go along the nitpicking of dust and mites, the resetting and smoothing of feathers.
“Him, on the end.” Jerry pecked at Percy’s scapulars as if he’d leaned over to arrange his feathers rather than gesture toward the next branch over.
Percy tried not to turn his head all the way, though he prided himself on having a nearly 360-degree swivel. Not all blue jays could turn their heads all the way around. He’d need just about all that radius to take a gander at the bird perched at the end of the branch behind him, however.
After a few warm-up swivels, Percy swung his beak toward his target.
“Not now!” Jerry squawked. “He’s looking right at us. Turn around. Turn around.”
Percy let his neck unwind a little too fast. The rest of the tree rushed past his eyes in a dizzying blur and he swayed on his perch a moment before regaining his equilibrium. “I nearly had him in view!”
“You didn’t have to turn all the way around that way. You looked ridiculous, twirling your head like that. Just look the other way. Quickly. Now…no, wait… Now!”
Percy performed a less impressive five degree turn the other direction and looked at the bird perched at the end of the next branch. Oh, yeah, something about him was definitely…off.
“It’s his breast,” Percy reported once he faced forward again. He then leaned over to peck at the side of Jerry’s head. “Stop already. Any more preening and you’ll misalign my coverts.”
“I’m not even close to your coverts. Now sit still a moment, two of your secondaries are tangled.”
Percy extended his wing carefully to give Jerry access to his feathers. “He’s too blue.”
“I know! I mean, I like a blue breast on a guy.” Jerry snapped his beak.
Proud of his show of blue, Percy puffed up his breast.
“But there’s a right and wrong shade of blue.” Jerry twitched a secondary. “His is much too showy.”
“Maybe he’s related to Reginald.”
“No, Reginald’s blue had a more violet tinge. You’re talking about Reginald who nested with Agatha last season, right?”
“I still can’t believe he left Arthur for that shrill.”
“Great eggs, though.” Jerry shrugged.
Percy studied the veritable swarm of birds perched along every branch of the tree. “S’pose you’re right. He came from Catherine’s nest, didn’t he?”
“No, I’m pretty sure he was Gertrude and Bartholomew’s egg.”
“Bartholomew?” Percy cocked his head. “One-eyed-Bart? Did you see his mating flight?”
“Oh, I know. I’m amazed he caught Gertie at all. If you ask me, she let him catch her. She always had a soft spot for Bart.” Jerry had finished arranging Percy’s secondaries. “Extend your wing a little farther, sweets, and I’ll have a go at your marginals.”
It would be useless to argue. Percy extended his wing and practiced swiveling his neck again. Three hundred, three-twenty-or-so, three—
Percy turned his head the other way and took another peek at Mr. Blue. Blinked rapidly. “Who is he, anyway?”
“I don’t know! I’m fairly certain he joined the flock last flight. What makes him think he can just perch on any old branch, I just can’t say. Highly impertinent.”
Percy eyed the stranger again. His breast really was quite blue. “Perhaps he’s lost. You know, we could just ask him who he is.”
“What if he’s someone important? Admitting we don’t know his name would be the worst sort of insult.”
“If he was that important, we’d know his name, Jerry.”
Jerry huffed into his feathers, shifting the ones he’d just aligned. Retracting his wing, Percy ducked his head to tend them. Beside him, he could feel Jerry turning to eye the strange bird.
“It’s not just his breast,” Jerry murmured. “There’s something about his eyes and his neck. It’s too thick.”
Which would make it harder to swivel, Percy thought.
“You know, I don’t think he’s a blue jay at all.”
“What else could he be?”
“Ever heard about cuckoos?”
Percy raised his head so suddenly, he dislodged a marginal. “You don’t think—” He glanced over his shoulder. “I didn’t think they worked in disguise.”
“Maybe they do, now. I mean, you’d think we’d notice a different egg in the nest, but no one ever does, do they? So I can’t imagine why we would notice a different bird. But maybe someone did and now cuckoos are employing disguises.”
A shiver crept beneath Percy’s feathers. He scanned the rest of the birds on the next branch, then turned to look at Jerry, his little mind whirling with possibilities. “Maybe that’s what happened to Cornelius. There was always something odd about the bird that nested with him.”
“Oh my God, I think you’re right!”
Jerry began an agitated dance along the branch. “We need to do something. Say something!”
“But what? What can we say? Maybe he’s a deliberate plant.”
“Maybe the cuckoos aren’t content to move in one nest at a time.”
“How horrible. Percy! Percy! You know what this means, right?”
“That we have to find female mates and make more eggs?” His wings were flapping independently of thought, fluff and marginals flying around him in a dusty haze.
“Say it ain’t so!”
“We need to do something Jerry. Do something, do something, do something.”
Jerry launched from the branch with a petrified squawk and fluttered upward with short jerky thrusts of his wings. Percy followed. Their panic alerted the rest of the flock, who didn’t bother to look for the source. They simply followed, as a good flock must. Soon, the air was filled with the beat of wings and the shrill of anxious cries as every bird swarmed the air. The sky was thick with birds until they settled into a pattern, following the leader to safety, which was apparently the tree next door.
Percy settled gratefully onto a branch next to Jerry and immediately started pecking his feathers back into place. Jerry chirped anxiously for a few minutes before settling. Then he began swiveling his head. He still didn’t have quite the number of degrees Percy had.
He stopped moving. “Percy, Percy.”
“Don’t look now, but that bird over there. Something about him is…off.”