Sunday, September 21, 2008

Those Darn Jays! And one of their cousins.

Steller's Jay. Photo by David Powell

Seems like they are everywhere, and into everything. Just watching their antics brings a smile to most folks. Their raucous call is the first sound I hear when I pull into the drive at my Jemez home; the sentinel loudly proclaiming the arrival of the source of raw peanuts, one of their favored foods at my place. Steller’s Jays are the most common in the ponderosa pine forest, but several other species also reside in the Jemez valley and mountains including Western Scrub-jay, Pinyon Jay, Gray Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker. Each fills a unique niche, and all reside in slightly different habitats. Some species are absent from, or highly inconspicuous, in the Jemez for at least part of the year.

All jays are members of the Corvid family of birds, which includes crows, ravens, magpies. The source of many legends and myths, they are the largest of the passerines, or perching birds, and as a group are considered to be among the most intelligent birds. Conspicuous in their presence, they are bold, active, noisy and aggressive. They are survivors in the avian world!

Those that are most frequently seen in the New Mexico highlands, the Steller’s, Pinyon, and Western Scrub-jay have noticeably blue plumage, almost iridescent in some light. Interestingly, there is no blue pigment in their feathers; the color is a purely structural effect dependent on the fine colorless framework of interlocking barbs in their feathers, and why the color varies relative to sunlight.

All jays are omnivores, eating a wide variety of plant and animal foods including insects, nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, small mammals, and eggs and young of smaller birds. Most jays also cache food such as nuts, by pushing it into crevices in the ground, or in the bark of trees. They loosen the soil with their bills, and sometimes even dig a small hole, insert a single food item, and then cover it with soil or vegetation. Interestingly, they can indeed return to the stash later to collect the hidden treasure.

Found in the higher elevation coniferous forest, particularly in ponderosa pine, Steller’s Jays are the largest of the western jays, and distinctive in their blue plumage and black crests, used for social interactions combined with a variety of postures and vocalizations. They habituate readily to humans, and are common at bird feeders and picnic areas. Possessing an extensive vocabulary, they also are mimics, and imitate raptors calls as well as those of other birds and mammals, including chickens and roosters, and dogs and cats. I once chased a Northern Goshawk through the forest, only to find a very vocal Stellar’s Jay at the end of my quest. Normally non-migratory, they will sometimes move to lower elevations during the winter months. They are monogamous, and pairs maintain a territory year-round. Independent young remain with their parents as a family group into the winter following hatching.

The Western Scrub-jay is generally found at lower elevations than the Steller’s Jay, and in more arid scrub and dry woodlands, including pinyon and juniper forests that are generally more open. I do; however, occasionally see them at my place. This medium-sized jay lacks a crest and has a long tail. It can be easily recognized by the dull blue upperparts with a patch of gray in the mid-back, and grayish-buff underpart. They also habituate easily to humans, and I often seem them near residences along the valley floor. Bold and confident around we two-legged featherless types, scrub-jays seem largely unaffected by our activities, and indeed their populations seem to be healthy in the western U.S. Monogamous pairs defend permanent, all-purpose territories, and share in territorial defense.

The behavior of the medium-sized Pinyon Jay differs considerably than either of the previous two jays. It is a highly social, cooperative-breeding, seed caching bird that often lives in permanent flocks that may contain 500 or more individuals. Although it is omnivorous, its ancestors evolved in close association with pine trees. Modern day Pinyon Jays are highly adapted for foraging on pine seeds, and have a number of adaptations that enable them to do so. Their bill is relatively long for removing seeds from cones, and they also possess an expandable esophagus, for storage of seeds. Individuals have an excellent memory that allows them uncanny accuracy when digging up hidden food stores months after caching them, and even beneath snow. Highly monogamous, divorce among this bird is extremely rare (< 3%). Extended family members, usually sons that were hatched the previous year, assist the parents with feeding, nest sanitation, and nest guarding. Pinyon Jays maintain large home ranges, and range widely throughout these areas year-round, always in a flock. Finding a flock is much like locating the proverbial needle in a haystack, thus limiting our ability to adequately assess numbers of birds as well as populations trends. They are primarily dependent on pinyon-juniper habitat, which is among the least appreciated of western woodland types, and is often targeted for removal or conversion to grassland. Additionally, the bark beetle infestation of the previous two years, that has killed a large number of pinyons may have an effect on populations.

Found in boreal and sub-alpine conif erous forest, the Gray Jay, is only rarely seen in the Jemez Mountains and only in the highest of elevations, generally during the winter months. Its range extends southward only into northern New Mexico. Adapted to a life in a hostile environment, it employs an unusual food storage behavior. Copious, sticky saliva, is used to fasten food items in trees, which are retrieved throughout the year.
Clark's Nutcracker. Photo by David Powell.

Also a pine seed specialist, the annual cycle of the Clark’s Nutcracker, is based on the availability of fresh and stored pine seeds. They begin consuming unripe seeds at high elevations in July, and by September are storing ripened seeds. In the fall, they often switch to new seed sources at at lower elevations, and by mid-winter, I find them at my suet feeders. Populations fluctuate between years, primarily in response to food availability, making this another difficult species to monitor. Their grating, noisy call is occasionally my reward at the end of a challenging, uphill hike to the escarpment of Virgin Mesa, which makes the sight of them at my water pan in winter ever more exciting.

Other larger cousins of these birds such as Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, and Common Raven also belong to the corvid family, and they are equally fascinating but fundamentally different than jays.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rainbow Bird - The Common Raven

Common Raven. Photograph by Gail Garber

Once upon a time, there lived a bird more beautiful, smarter, and braver than all the others. He had iridescent feathers of many colors and was admired by all for his many attributes. One day the Earth began to grow cold, and snow began to fall. The animals, who had never before seen snow, were not afraid. However, as the white blanket grew deeper daily, and food became limited, they asked their beautiful and smart friend to visit the Great Sky Spirit to stop the snow. Rainbow Crow volunteered to take the dangerous journey, calling out to the others in the sweetest voice of all, “I will go; I will stop the snow.”

The Great Sky Spirit had never before heard such a sweet song, as Rainbow Crow asked for help. Although he was powerless to stop the snow, he gave Rainbow Crow a stick with a bit of fire on the end and told him to hurry back home before the fire disappeared. On the first day, the fire blackened Rainbow Crow’s tail feathers. On the second day, the fire burned brighter on a shortened stick and covered all of his feathers with soot. On the third day, the fire was so hot and the smoke so thick that ash blew into his mouth and his once beautiful voice became harsh. As he returned home, the fire warmed the Earth and melted the snow, and the animals were happy. Rainbow Crow flew off alone and wept. He could no longer sing, was no longer beautiful and his rainbow feathers were gone forever.

The Great Sky Spirit heard Crow weeping, and came down from the sky to soothe the black bird. “Soon, the two-legged will walk the Earth, but because you are brave and unselfish, I will give you the gift of freedom. You will never be hunted for your meat tastes like fire and smoke; your feathers will never be taken because your rainbow colors are now black, and you will never be captured because your voice is broken and harsh. Your black feathers; however, shine and reflect all the colors of the Earth, if you take the time to look closely.”

One of my favorite legends, the delightful children’s, “Rainbow Crow”, by Nancy Van Laan, was based on a tale of the Lenape Indians. Crow, also known as Raven, probably has as many myths and legends associated with it as all the other birds combined. Native Americans of the northwest, revere ravens as being the creator of the earth, moon, sun, and stars, but the bird is also considered to be a trickster and a cheater. To some, the bird symbolizes death, wisdom, or danger.

Members of the Corvid family, the common raven is the largest of the passerines (or perching birds), strong and powerful, highly intelligent, playful, daring, and funny. Unappreciated by many, these remarkable birds are assuredly survivors in a human dominated landscape. It is one of the most geographically widespread, naturally occurring birds in the world. It is found throughout most of North America, and in all terrestrial land types except for rain forests. Although in some areas the population is rapidly expanding,is considered a pest, and programs are in place to reduce numbers, in other areas precipitous declines in population have lead to reintroduction efforts. It is listed as an endangered species in some states. They evolved with the great bison herds and wolf packs of North America. Now, they are resident wherever they occur, even in the high Arctic, although they wander during the winter.

They are the acknowledged leader in avian intelligence, with numerous stories about their cerebral prowess. A raven trapped in a wire cage was freed by wild ravens. From outside the cage, they dug a hole under the wire while the trapped raven dug from the inside, eventually making an opening large enough to crawl out. They have been documented using tools and making use of human equipment, such as bathing in sprinklers. Extraordinarily playful, they are inventive in their quest for fun. A few of the many reported behaviors include sliding down a snow-covered hill on their bellies, dropping and catching objects while in flight or passing them among each other, hanging upside down by one foot, playing tug-or-war, and harrassing other animals by pecking on their tails. In one instance a pair of ravens played an endless game of tag. One raven strutted close by a cat that gazed intently at the bird, apparently anticipating an an easy snack. In the meantime the other bird would quietly approach from behind to pull on the cat’s tail. As the cat turned to see what was tugging on it, the other raven would then pull on the again unprotected tail. This game went on four hours until the exhausted cat crawled off.

Supreme aerialists, they are often the only species surfing the sky on a very windy day when even the eagles are earthbound. Although they seem to be fearless, in reality, they are wary around humans and other unfamiliar objects. They generally inhabit areas more distant from human concentration areas than their cousin, the American Crow. They are dependent on coyote or wolves to open the carcasses of large animals, and although they will approach the predatory mammals, it is with the extreme caution on which their lives depend.

Pairs remain together throughout the year, and in winter, groups of ravens often roost together, possibly to reduce the effect of extreme low temperatures and wind chill. In areas where winter foods consist mostly of deer or elk carcasses, flocks of 50-100 are common. In other areas where grain is a major food source, up to 2,000 ravens have been seen together.

Perhaps the word adaptable should be included in the species’ name. Whatever the challenge, they rise to the occasion. One of my favorite sights occurs daily in the Jemez if one cares to climb to the higher mesa tops to look down on this magnificent bird as it plays on the thermals, rolling, diving, and climbing, all the while croaking with the harsh voice that was left to Rainbow Crow. If you look closely at a raven feather reflecting in the sunlight, you just might see the remains of the former rainbow.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Just a Sparrow

Female House Sparrow. Photo by Dave Herr

It was a rainy afternoon in the monsoon season of New Mexico. After a long day at work, I rounded the corner onto my street, so close to home that I was almost relaxed. Then, I saw her, a little wet lump sitting exactly on the center stripe of the road, obviously stunned. It was just a sparrow. A House Sparrow to be exact, scourge of North America in the minds of many; an introduced exotic species that out competes our native birds.

A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in the blink of an eye. Foremost was, quite soon, someone would surely make that left turn into the McDonald’s parking lot, and it would be her final moment. Even though there are a lot of House Sparrows here, I couldn’t let that happen. I whipped my Explorer around into a garden center parking lot, looking through the car quickly for a jacket, towel, or something that I could use to try to capture the bird. There was nothing. Well, the wet, feathered lump was still sitting there, but at least still alive. Perhaps she would be stunned enough that I could just pick her up.

I should have known better. I dashed out into the rain, and tried to unobtrusively sneak up on the little sparrow. Although stunned, she was certainly not oblivious to the giant human now in hot pursuit. She perked right up, and tried to look as healthy as possible. One tiny little wing dragged and was clearly broken, but there was nothing wrong with her legs. Off she dashed across the street and right into the McDonald’s drive-thru lane. I skirted around and she raced off toward the shrubs. If I was worried about looking foolish before, it was nothing compared to how I felt as cars began to stop and look at the strange woman chasing a tiny bird through the parking lot. Ms. Sparrow made it to the juniper before me, but I arrived before she scrambled beneath what she viewed as safety. A quick flip of the wrist and I had the prize firmly in my wet hand. Returning to the car, I realized that I had no box or cloth with which to confine her for the one-block trip to the house. Nor could I drive, shift, and hold the sparrow. I stuffed her into the leftover McDonald’s bag that had held that morning’s breakfast burrito. Somehow, it seemed fitting.

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is an Old World sparrow, not related to the American, or New World, sparrows that are native to North America. There are more than thirty species of native New World sparrows in our country, all of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. While some of our native sparrows are abundant, for others there are serious conservation concerns, as well as significant threats.

However, when the word “sparrow” is mentioned, it is the ubiquitous House Sparrow that comes to mind. In 1851 and 1852, 100 birds were introduced in Brooklyn, New York to help control the canker worms that infested many of the trees in the parks. Ironically, this lowly sparrow, set free to control an insect pest, is primarily a seed-eating bird. There were no natural predators in our country for the little urban dwelling sparrow and they thrived in their new land. The House Sparrow is now one of the most abundant songbirds on our continent, with an estimated 150 million birds in North America. Although abundant, long term data indicate a general continental decline in the House Sparrow population.

Worldwide there is great concern about the survival of the species. During the 1950s, the Mao Tse Tung regime unleashed a campaign to rid that country of the House Sparrow, resulting in targeted and committed persecution of the bird. In the United Kingdom, populations have declined as much as 83%, without any known deliberate killing of even a single bird.

In the Netherlands, it is an endangered species. In 1995, the misadventure of one unfortunate sparrow that flew in through an open window and knocked over 23,000 dominoes incited the wrath of environmental groups worldwide. The ill-fated bird flew into an exposition center in the northern city of Leeuwarden, where employees of TV company Endemol NV had worked for weeks setting up more than 4 million dominoes in an attempt to break the official Guinness World Record for falling dominoes. The little sparrow was chased into a corner and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle.

The following day, the Dutch animal protection agency demanded prosecution, "Under Dutch law, you need a permit to kill this kind of bird, and a permit can only be granted when there's a danger to public health or a crop," said agency spokesman Niels Dorland. "That was not the case. I might add: Is it really necessary to kill a bird that knocked over a few dominoes for a game?" he asked. The story made headlines worldwide. Not since Cock Robin has the death of a tiny bird caused such emotion.

Eventually, the Dutch Bird Protection Agency reported that although it was a very sad incident, it had been blown out of all proportion. "I just wish we could channel all this energy that went into one dead sparrow into saving the species," Dorland stated.

In my case, Ms. Sparrow stayed the night, regularly breaking out of the box that held her on my kitchen countertop. She was transported to Wildlife Rescue the following morning, and at last report was doing just fine, living with all the other House Sparrows in the rehab center. Humans have interfered with her life since she before she born, from releasing her species into a strange world, to her encounter that rainy day with someone’s bumper. She is just one sparrow. But she did not die a lingering death in a parking lot, thanks to wildlife rehabilitators who care enough to put the time and energy into her recovery. And one determined lady who wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night if I had just driven on by.