(In addition to trying to learn to understand the scrub-jay language, I’m trying to learn how to speak Spanish, which is why this title popped into my head. Yes, I can’t resist alliteration, and yes, I have discovered that I may need to find nests)
It is an early morning in April, and I know that scrub-jays are building nests. Not long after walking out into the scrub, I spot a potential nest-builder. The scrub-jay is perched atop a lone, dead tree that towers above the short scrub oaks below, watching for predators. I check the bird’s leg bands to verify who I’m looking at, and then wait to see if she or her ‘husband’ will show me any behavior indicating that they are building a nest.
If you imagine that working as a field biologist is constant excitement (crazier things have been imagined), then the reality may disappoint you. The usually relaxing, meditative quality of the work that I have chosen is precisely why I love my job. Currently, I get to spend a lot of time watching scrub-jays stoically gazing across their empire, waiting for them to teach me something.
I’m sure that some people who might read this post will wonder why the state of Florida would pay me to, among other things, find nests. The answer is that finding and monitoring nests is a great way to determine the reproductive success of any bird species. Identifying specific microhabitats in which birds like to build nests (say, like in the case of scrub-jays, beneath prickly vines) is a good way for land managers to know which conditions to create for birds that they want to attract. Another useful application of nest searching is to determine whether or not a given population of birds is a ‘source’ or a ‘sink.’ In other words, if one determines that all of the scrub-jays on their property are unable to fledge any young year after year due to, say, a very dense nest predator population, that property (a ‘sink’) may not be an ideal recipient location for translocated birds, because moving birds there would not provide much help for increasing the overall, state-wide and/or regional population. A population that is more likely to be a ‘source’ population, where conditions are better, is be a better choice for translocation. I’m monitoring nests primarily because we want to learn if translocation is an effective way to increase scrub-jay populations throughout the state.
After 15 minutes, I see the male scrub-jay fly up to the tree and hop up next to his mate. He quickly feeds her, then she flies away and he takes over sentinel duty. Courtship feeding, in my experience, seems to become more common around nest-building time. I walk in the direction that I saw her fly, to see if she provides any clues. I have trouble finding her, though finally hear the rapid jingling of her metal leg band as she itches her chin with a foot, like most dogs do. The male softly, gutturally calls from his perch. She calls back in the same way, saying, ‘I’m alright, honey. It’s just that weird human, again.’
I catch a blue blur in the corner of my eye as she flies north. Then, I hear a crashing sound that I recognize. What I hear, I am fairly sure, is the sound of her pulling palmetto fibers from a scrub palmetto.
Slowly, I walk toward the sound. Sure enough, one by one, she is pulling long fibers off of the palmetto plant. Because she is collecting fibers, I know that the pair are at least half way done building their nest. All of the sticks have been gathered, and they are now working on completing the soft, inner lining of their nest. I hope that she does not drop the fibers, like I’ve seen other birds do, before bringing them to the nest. Up to the top of a myrtle oak she flies. I’m ready to run…. Next, she flies up and lands beside her mate for a few seconds. Then, they both fly out of sight to the south as I sprint through the thick scrub, being smacked in the face by branches and maybe watched by rattlesnakes which think in their reptilian way how foolish I am for running through the scrub, when they could be anywhere. FYI, I don’t actually assume that rattlesnakes have a notion of ‘foolish,’ but it’s fun to imagine.
Scrub-jays almost always fly straight to the nest when they have nest material. So, by watching which way they flew, I know in which general direction the nest is located. However, I don’t know how far away it is, and it takes me about ten minutes to find the jays again. After 45 more minutes, I conclude that the scrub-jays have lost the mood for nest-building. Tomorrow, I’ll return….
And when I do return, it is not long before I see another bill-full of palmetto fibers being flown, this time to the west. I imagine the line and direction of their current flight, as well as their flight from the day before. Where the two lines cross, I know, is where the nest is. So, with the knowledge of approximately where their nest is, I climb a pine tree that is just sturdy enough to hold me. I scan over the scrub in the direction that I think that their nest is, waiting for them to return.
Like my co-worker said, I remember as I sway in the pine, nest-searching is a lot like hunting, though without killing. When I finally see the jays flying again toward their nest, I feel lucky that I can still harness my deep instincts and senses to accomplish daily tasks. After seeing the jays enter a sand live oak together, a part of me feels happy that I wasn’t offered the jobs which I had interviewed for that would have almost doubled my paycheck, but more than halved my opportunities to be out in the field. Outdoors, I know as I jump out of the pine, is where one can understand and feel the forces that created them and everything else. As I walk toward the nest, I feel lucky that circumstance has allowed me to experience first-hand the incredible behaviors of organisms like scrub-jays that have resulted from at least 14 billion years of interactions between living and non-living things.
The need to protect the life that is left is very obvious to me, so I feel very content helping to understand and protect scrub-jays. When wildlife disappears due to our actions, we will lose our link to ‘eternity,’ be fooled by technology, be denied of most of the feelings that we are capable of, and trapped in a miserable world that we are not suited to thrive in. Seeing scrub-jays in the scrub reminds me that there is a place for me, too, and that place is not on a highway or in a shopping mall. If I ever create a ‘nest,’ I know, I’ll have scrub-jays in mind.
The female scrub-jay slowly pokes her head out of the shrub where her nest is. She looks at me, then angrily pecks a narrow branch. I back away, and she calms down. A third bird, the pair’s offspring from the previous year, alights next to his mother, but is chased away by Dad. The ‘teenagers’ aren’t allowed close to the nest when it is being built, I’ve learned. When she is satisfied that I don’t know where her nest is, the female flies off to find more fibers, and the male follows. Quickly, before they return, I use my mirror to see how far along the nest is, mark the location with my GPS, and go to the neighboring territory, to look for another nest. All’s well in the scrub.
Unfortunately, though, all’s not always well in the scrub for scrub-jays. By June, the end of the nesting season, I’ve found almost 30 nests, and know very well how dangerous it is to be either an egg or nestling in a nest. The majority of nests that I monitor fail, mostly due to snakes such as this yellow rat snake:
One day, I was lucky enough to see a scrub-jay pulling the tail of a garter snake which was crossing the road. Repeatedly, the snake struck at the bold bird, until it was able to slither away from its hopping pursuer. Harassing snakes is a useful behavior if snakes eat your babies. If a scrub-jay cannot eat the snake that it is harassing, maybe their calls will attract a hawk which can. I cannot help but imagine that an adult scrub-jay which recently went missing may have gotten a bit too close to, say, a rat snake that it was mobbing. If so, that bird could not have died a more heroic death, so far as scrub-jays are concerned.
When I saw an alligator in the scrub, I was reminded that I, too, could be on the ‘menu.’ I know that being attacked by an alligator would be an exceptionally rare event. However, the presence of such ambush predators reminds me that I, too, am a natural thing which is vulnerable, which is best off paying attention to surroundings, and which could quickly become only energy that keeps something else alive. That knowledge is, you may be surprised to read, more comforting than anything else that I know. By knowing this, the pressure and incoherence of human-made concepts that suggest otherwise disappear. When I’m in the scrub, as I watch a young scrub-jay that has beaten the odds by escaping the snakes, crows, and raccoons, I’m reminded how unlikely life is. I remember to appreciate the fact that, so far, I’ve escaped the alligators and the less literal but equally dangerous ‘predators’ that pretend not to be, which just might have a first and last name. In other words, I remember to appreciate my short time in the air, as I watch the young scrub-jay fly by.