Jays of Our Lives – Part 2

Note: Before reading this, you may want to check out ‘Part 1’ to know what happened last time on Jays of Our Lives, which is a mini-series about some of my experiences studying Florida Scrub-Jays.

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The morning after we released Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Light Blue (the male scrub-jay) and Black/Silver – Red/White (the female scrub-jay), I drove through the scrub just after sunset and parked near where I thought the birds would be. I took out my radio receiver and antenna, then scanned 360 degrees to see if I could detect a signal from either of the birds, who each had unique frequencies that I could enter into the receiver. From the same point, standing on top of my 1996 Ford Bronco, I was able to detect a signal from both Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White. However, just as I had left them the previous afternoon, they were separated. I hoped that they had both made it through the night, and that neither transmitter was in the stomach of a snake or owl. Being alone in a new place is dangerous for scrub-jays, just like it is dangerous for people.

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Black/Silver – Red/Black, one of the birds that I spend a lot of time with

I decided to look for Hot Pink/Light Blue first, and picked up a strong signal about 200 meters to the northwest of where we had released him and his mate. Soon, I found him alone in the scrub, and followed him for over an hour as he gradually moved to the east. It was interesting to see that he intermittently foraged and then acted as a ‘look out’ for his mate who was not there, which is likely a behavior that is genetically hard-wired and/or a semi-learned habit that is hard to break. This ‘sentinel behavior’ is a somewhat unique behavior utilized by scrub-jays, which is a good way for at least one member of the group to always have an eye on the sky, searching for hawks. It was a bit sad to think that no one was looking out for Hot Pink/Light Blue.

He reached the eastern edge of the block of scrub that we were in, where it met an area of very short scrub that was growing back after recently being burned. Across the future scrub-jay habitat, I was sure that he could see the scrub which he had been chased from the day before. As I watched him, I could not help but wonder if he knew that southeast was the direction that he should fly to find his mate. I also wondered if he was hesitant to fly across that area because of the danger of encountering the group of three scrub-jay neighbors, who could see and chase him again. To my slight disappointment, I watched as he gradually moved back into the scrub to the west, away from his mate, unnaturally alone.

The next day, the same cycle repeated itself. Both the male and female foraged alone, noticeably furtive and more quiet than usual, probably to avoid the attention of neighbors.

I told another biologist, who has studied the resident jays for over ten years, and color-banded most of them, about the situation. He suggested that maybe Hot Pink/Light Blue ‘has his eye on’ a neighboring female, one of the birds that had chased him away from his mate. The female that he described was a ‘helper’ in the group of three (the other two were her parents) immediately to the south of where Hot Pink/Light Blue was hanging out. It seemed that maybe I was watching a divorce, possibly caused by Hot Pink/Light Blue’s interest in a ‘younger woman.’

On the third morning after we released the pair, I tracked down Hot Pink/Light Blue and was surprised to see that another scrub-jay was with him. My first thought was: the ‘younger woman.’ I moved closer, and after losing both of the birds several times in scrub oaks, saw that the unknown bird was Red/White! She had apparently made the flight through ‘hostile territory’ and had found her ‘husband.’ On the next morning, I found them both back very near to the release cage, where she had stayed originally, quietly foraging. It seemed that she had tracked him down and brought him back, like ‘balls and chains’ tend to do. Kidding and anthropomorphizing aside, I’ll admit, I was a bit relieved that I did not help to cause a scrub-jay divorce.

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Just over a week after we released Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White, I couldn’t detect either of their signals. I drove completely around the 40-acre block of scrub that they had been hanging out in, stopping and standing in the bed of my truck (which was easier than standing on the top of a Ford Bronco). With the extra height, I could increase the range at which I might detect them to about a ½ mile, but still, no signal. For the past week, they had been daily driven out of the scrub into tall pine trees to the east by both of the neighboring groups. Apparently, the neighboring groups claimed a lot more territory than we had thought. It appeared to me that Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White had decided that it was time to find a new home. They could have basically gone anywhere looking for scrub, and it was up to me to figure out where. I knew that the public forest that I was working in consisted of over 27,000 acres. Therefore, I hoped that they decided to settle near to a road within the forest, so that I could detect and find them. If they settled on private land, which is interspersed throughout the forest to the north, and very near to where we released the birds, I knew that that would complicate things. However, before beginning a ‘wild scrub-jay’ chase, I decided to walk south in the direction that I had seen them go before, after being chased by their neighbors. I waved the antenna around, hoping to hear a beep. Nothing, nothing, nothing but static at three different spots. It was about time to start driving around the forest, searching for a signal, I thought. Because I wasn’t looking forward to doing that, I walked a bit further south and tried one more time to search for a signal. Just barely, I could hear the beeping of Red/White’s transmitter!

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View of scrub, from atop a Ford Bronco

At about that time, I received a phone call from another person who is a part of the project. He wanted to see how the jays were doing. So, we met and walked south together. Through long-leaf pine forest, which is not good scrub-jay habitat, we went toward the signal, which gradually got stronger. Finally, 0.75 miles south of where I initially picked up the signal, we spotted our birds. They were dispersing, and made long flights punctuated by short periods of rest in small clearings amongst the tall forest. If they found a nice area of scrub, we knew, that could become their new home. I happened to know that it would be another mile to the south before they found new scrub, and just when I was beginning to think that they would end up there, they changed directions and began moving west. We followed them a mile to the west, and then a mile to the north, until finally they reached scrub that was about a mile to the west of where they had been released. Maybe unwittingly, maybe not, they had gone around five groups of scrub-jays and ended up in unoccupied scrub. It seemed like they had found a new home.

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The next day, however, they met new neighbors who were as unwelcoming as the first two groups which they had met. They were driven to the north into unoccupied scrub, and after spending two days there went back a mile to the east, near their release cage. Quite the adventure they had! Considering that scrub is a habitat that can quickly be changed, due to fire, say, or due to the scrub-oaks growing too tall for the liking of scrub-jays, it is probably good for scrub-jays to become familiar with their surroundings. By becoming familiar with where other scrub is, a scrub-jay group can find a new home when they need to. So, maybe the adventure that I was lucky enough to witness wasn’t for naught.

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About a month after their adventure, I was with Hot Pink/Light Blue and Red/White in the morning. As usual, I followed them around, marked their locations, and noted their behaviors. With my binoculars, I saw that several palmetto fibers were in the bill of Red/White. Despite their apparent trouble settling in, I thought, they must be building a nest!

Nest searching season had arrived, for both me and predators. Will I be able to find any nests, or will the clever jays out-wit me? What predators are lurking in the scrub? What potential predator’s tail do I see a scrub-jay pull? What predator do I see in the scrub which could eat me?

Find out nest (I mean next) time on Jays of Our Lives!

Jays of Our Lives – Part 1

Working with Florida Scrub-Jays is far more entertaining than any soap opera I’ve seen (admittedly, I have not seen many). Being a biologist who studies scrub-jays, though, naturally causes one to compare a day’s work to witnessing a soap opera, considering the drama that is seen every day. I have heard the phrase, ‘Jays of Our Lives’ used independently by a couple of my co-workers, in reference to the popular soap opera, ‘Days of Our Lives.’ So, I thought that I would describe some of what I have seen! I will do so in a series of posts, highlighting some of the interesting events and/or dramas that I have witnessed in the scrub, usually in relation to scrub-jays.

First off, you should know that Florida Scrub-jays are, appropriately, based on their name, only found in Florida. They are well-adapted to survive in ‘scrub,’ which primarily consists of oak species that are less than 2.5 meters tall. Florida is called ‘the lightning capital of the world,’ which historically caused regular wildfires, therefore maintaining habitat conditions that scrub-jays depend upon. However, we human beings have suppressed natural fire cycles and have converted much scrub habitat into housing developments, etc. Thus, Florida Scrub-jays are federally recognized as being ‘threatened’ due to the isolation of their existing habitats, which makes movement from one patch of habitat to the next very difficult for these birds that have short wings and a natural tendency to stay put. Therefore, I am part of a team that has been working to experimentally translocate these birds, so that we can understand if doing so will be an effective way to protect their genetic diversity (which is crucial step towards protecting scrub-jays from extinction). My job, as an employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is primarily to monitor how the birds we moved are doing. So, I get to spend a whole lot of time with scrub-jays!

You should also know that Florida Scrub-jays are ‘cooperative breeders,’ which means that offspring (most of the time) stick around to help their parents raise their siblings. Sound familiar? We humans, of course, have a similar life strategy. Just over 3% (or maybe slightly more, estimates vary) of bird species are currently known to be cooperative breeders. A similar percentage of mammals (humans are mammals) breed cooperatively. Therefore, both humans and scrub-jays are in the minority in this regard. Also, scrub-jays are in the ‘Corvid’ family, which includes ravens and crows. These birds have been described as ‘primates of the bird world,’ due to their large brains and impressive intelligence (see another post: ‘Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness’). This is yet another reason that these birds are similar to us humans. So, yes, scrub-jays are special! Of course, every species is special in some way….

Most of the birds that we are studying are uniquely banded so that we can tell who is who. Here is a picture of a color banded Scrub-jay:

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Also, most of the birds that we moved to the new location have radio transmitters on them, so I can always find them (assuming that they have not gone on an adventure). Because of the transmitters and color bands, I can know ‘who is dating,’ ‘who is arguing,’ ‘who has died,’ and all of that other stuff that some people like to watch soap operas to see.

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Transmitter being put on a Florida Scrub-Jay

So, now that I have the background information out of the way, I will begin the story of Black/Silver – Hot Pink/Azure (a dashing male) and Black/Silver – Red/White (a beautiful female).

This pair is tough. We know that they have been together since 2013, and that Hot Pink/Azure is at least 6 years old and Red/White is at least 4 years old. Before they were translocated together, over 80% of their territory was deemed mostly useless to them by people who were trying to promote sand pine growth so that the pulp of these tress can later be harvested. The habitat that we moved them to is, as far I as I can tell, much better for scrub-jays than the habitat that they were taken from. We housed them in a cage for just under 36 hours before releasing them, so that they could become somewhat familiar with their surroundings before trying to settle in.

Initially, they refused to leave the cage, and stayed a night longer than we had wanted them to. When they finally did leave the cage, I followed them, and was pleased to see that they were behaving normally. Like usual, they were taking turns watching out for each other, while the other bird foraged. They did not seem to be bothered by their transmitters (no pulling on the antenna, no difficulty flying). All seemed well, until, 30 minutes after release, they wandered into the territory of another scrub-jay group. This was going to happen sooner or later, but luckily, I was there to see what happened. After I heard the first territorial calls, I saw Hot Pink/Azure and Red/White flying back towards the cage, with two other birds, a father-daughter pair, in hot pursuit. Soon, three other birds (a breeding pair and their helper) from a neighboring territory joined the chase, which noisily lasted for over an hour. Eventually, I saw Hot Pink/Azure, the male, chased to the northwest while Red/White was chased to the south. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, 40 minutes, passed. I was surprised, and a bit worried, to see that the pair were not reuniting. Because of their radio transmitters, I could tell that they were separated by about 400 meters. I needed to go check on another pair that we had recently released, so I had to leave. When I returned a couple hours later, they were still separated. They both, it seemed, were hiding alone, in foreign land, with hostile neighbors.

Will they reunite? Will they be able to form their own territory? Will they fly away and leave me with no idea where they went? Will they make a nest and lay eggs?

More next time, on Jays of Our Lives!!