Do I Really Look Like an Ostrich?

“You look like an ostrich.”

That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.

I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.

Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.

The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).

In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.

It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.

I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.

I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.

I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.

To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.

Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.

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:

Florida-scrub-jay-with-peanut-in-beak

 

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!!

Seeing Upon Rocky Shores (Point Pelee and Isle Royale)

I am sitting upon a Canadian rock, watching the rhythmic, breaking grey waves of Lake Erie. The wind presses hard against my face, and a slight rain falls, but these sensations which might cause most people to get up and go towards shelter are over-ridden by something in me which wants to stay where it is. And I am watching and listening to the violent splashes of water on rock, feeling the mist, when I think of how incredible my mind is, which has created the whole scene around me. ‘Cold’ doesn’t exist without a mind to create it, nor does the particular image that I see of atoms interacting and light reflecting, which some might naively call just another lousy wave breaking at their feet. The gull flying over my head sees the stunted hackberry tree that is shivering in the wind at my back differently than I do, as its mind creates a different, more one-dimensional image of the world (because of its monocular vision due having an eye on each side of its head), an image that is, for example, probably better used for detecting floating fish on the surface of the water than mine is. We all see in a way which helped our ancestors to survive, and miss essentially everything that wasn’t helpful. I am reminded of the fact that approximately 95 percent of our Universe is apparently made of matter/energy which human astronomers cannot even identify, and of how my human eyes can perceive far less than one hundredth of a percent of the light waves entering them. So for a while I watch the incredible detail of the rolling waves, and the deep feeling of air in my lungs and wind upon my face, grateful for what I can perceive and aware of the awesome beauty that I cannot imagine.

I walk to the southern-most point of the Canadian mainland, at Point Pelee National Park (a world-renowned place to see birds in migration), where the juniper, hackberry, and maple trees give way to the ever-shifting sand that becomes a point jutting into the lake. I stand as close as I dare (for fear of being taken by waves) to where the sand disappears beneath the water, which is not as far as the gulls who have congregated further to the south. On my right (to the west) are the same waves that I had been watching from my thoughtful rock, but to my left the water is as calm and flat as one’s swimming pool before one-time (long ago) 250 pound high school wrestling champion Uncle Billy jumps in. The contrast and close proximity between calm and not-calm is striking, as seen here:

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Point Pelee

So, as usual when at such spots, I sit down again and take in what I feel lucky to be able to see. I watch a Sanderling (a type of bird, see below) braving the waves that pushes it around near the Point as it searches for food amongst the sand to provide energy so that it can continue its flight from the Arctic to, possibly, the southern tip of the South American continent. What a journey! As the Sanderling walks near my feet, I spot a walleye that has been pushed by the waves onto the sand, where it struggles until another wave pushes it closer to the calm water, then closer again, and closer again until finally it reaches deep water on the other side. And it is very clear to me in the wind on the Point that an unexpected sandbar could catch any of us, and that it may take waves that we cannot control, waves that may never come, to push us to calmer waters. So I enjoy the current while I can, before deciding to get up.

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Sanderling, which didn’t appear to mind me

I begin walking along the calm shore, and pass a woman who through the wind is able to say to me, ‘this is beautiful.’ And it is, though certainly the beauty that she sees is different than the beauty that I see, just as, though probably to a smaller degree, the walleye’s view of the water and the Sanderling’s view of the sand is far different than how I see those small parts of our world. The beauty that I see is a reminder of the tenuous nature of life, and of humanity’s impact upon that life on this planet.

I worry very much about our fellow inhabitants of Earth, which interact with the world in such a way that is determined by past conditions. The gull sees the way it does because  the long line of its ancestors were determined, among other reasons, by who could see fish the best and therefore past on their genes the most effectively. But this line of reasoning goes beyond vision, of course. Everything about the Sanderling, from its plumage, to its bill, are adapted to survive. And if we humans are drastically changing the environment in which these species live, what chance does the Sanderling, for example, have? What chance do we have if the many species that our ancestors interacted with disappear? If our eyes were suddenly confronted with conditions that they were not adapted for, would we, blinded, have a chance to survive? Probably not, and the same problems are being faced by other organisms as we militantly convert the landscape, and other conditions, which they depend upon.

As I walk along the calm beach, I am reminded of a recent trip to Isle Royale, another national park. Because of our love for the natural world, a friend of mine and I drove all of the way from Indiana to the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, Houghton specifically, where we caught a ferry that took over six hours to reach the beautiful wilderness island in Lake Superior, a backpacking naturalist’s paradise. We spent four nights and five days on the island, hiking over 40 miles through the backcountry, before taking a float plane back to the mainland. The island is famous for the long-term study that has taken place there to understand the predator and prey population dynamics of moose and wolves. The wolves control the moose population, preying upon the weak and elderly, so that the plants on the island aren’t heavily browsed by moose, which in turn causes the moose population to be healthier than it otherwise would be. When the moose population declines, so does the wolf population, which causes the moose population to go up, and so on, which causes a predictable, wave-like cycle in regard to numbers of these animals on the island. But, because of a recent warming of the globe (which humans have likely caused due to the burning of fossil fuels), the water between the island and Canada does not freeze as often as if otherwise would, which has isolated the wolf population, caused deadly inbreeding, and reduced the number of wolves to only two, from an average during the last 75 years of around 25. These wolves, half-siblings as well as father and daughter, will die soon. Not surprisingly, the moose population is rapidly increasing, which, if the National Park Service does not intervene by introducing more wolves (or by finding another way to control the moose population), could result in a serious degradation of the island’s plant-life, and therefore endanger all of the animals on the island which depend upon that plant-life. We saw a total of six moose while on the island, including this one, which would soon be followed across the trail by her calf:

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Courtesy of my friend Lincoln

It seems that the park’s size (~900 square miles) is not large enough to sustain an isolated population of wolves (if immigration were still possible, the population would likely survive due to new genes wandering in). This is an important reminder that habitat size, and connectivity of existing habitats, is crucial for the preservation of natural systems. Even mainland parks like Point Pelee National Park are essentially islands surrounded by developed land, and the survival of its inhabitants depend upon immigration from nearby habitats (which often don’t exist). Here is an aerial photograph of Point Pelee National Park, which has an obvious border with the adjacent, developed land:

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Point Pelee from above

There is a well-established ecological principle that after an episode of terrestrial habitat destruction, calculating the fourth root of area remaining as wildlife habitat will provide a somewhat accurate prediction of the percentage of species that will remain. For example, if 50 percent of Earth’s land area is set aside for non-human life and the rest made useful only for humans, approximately 84% of the species originally present will avoid extinction into the foreseeable future. This is the rationale of the great biologist, E.O. Wilson, who is valiantly campaigning to set aside half of the world for wild things. His book on the subject can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Half-Earth-Our-Planets-Fight-Life/dp/1631490826. It is not surprising that, even though the ~ 6 square miles that encompass this park were protected in 1918, species within it are still being lost. For example, of the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) present before European habitation, six of eleven amphibian species and 10 of 21 reptile species no longer exist in the park (Hecnar and Hecnar 2013). Protecting large areas of habitat and connecting them to other protected areas is absolutely crucial for protecting wildlife.

I continue to walk along the calm side of the Point, aware, as always, of the threat that life on our planet faces, and feel that I have no choice but to do my best to do whatever I can to help preserve what is left. I see a swirling cyclone of over 50 migrating Blue Jays rapidly enter the trees to my left (these birds, like hawks and butterflies, don’t want to cross Lake Erie during their southern migration, so follow its coastline to the west to cross the Detroit River, where I have seen them every day for the past three weeks). And as I watch them enter the trees, I see a small falcon, called a Merlin, flying just over the tree-line, which is certainly what had frightened the jays. As I watch this predatory bird, I forget everything but the moment, probably like the falcon. I watch as the Merlin goes after a small flock of songbirds, probably American Goldfinches, and soon focuses on one, which repeatedly dives towards the water before ascending to avoid the fast-pursuing falcon. The small songbird flees over the beach, into the trees and out of sight, as the Merlin is gaining ground. I am left to wonder what will become of the little songbird, and of the little falcon, which needs a meal to survive.

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Merlin

I later think that this series of events near the Point could be related metaphorically to what is happening to life on this planet. It appears that for many awe-inspiring species, doing all that they can do to survive, there is a fast-approaching killer closing in on them. And I am ashamed to know that we as humans, with our destruction of habitats, changing of the climate, and lack of understanding of what we are or what we can cause, are acting as a major killer of life on this Earth, which could be thought of as a fleeing songbird. We as a species are not evil, just as the falcon is not evil. We are all doing what we think that we need to do to survive. But no matter how bleak the situation currently looks, I, like I imagine that the little songbird escaped (and the Merlin found another, less Anthropomorphized meal!), am optimistic that we can change our ways and priorities before it is too late to save ourselves and much of the rest of life on Earth. Awareness of, and a strong conviction by, a large number of people are all that it will take to improve our situation as it relates to our natural environment, and there are many ways that you (!!) can help, such as by educating someone else, joining (and/or donating to) a conservation club, doing citizen science by, say, reporting what birds go to your bird feeder on this website (http://feederwatch.org/), voting responsibly for environmental protection in elections, not being pessimistic, and/or creating some wildlife habitat by planting native species in your yard.

As I type this, I am glad to know that wild, rocky shores, teeming with non-human life, still exist, and hope that they do for as long as there are people to see and understand the beauty which we are privileged enough to have the capability to see.

 

Literature Cited

Stephen J. Hecnar and Darlene R. Hecnar. 2013. Losses of Amphibians and Reptiles at Point Pelee National Park. Parks Research Forum of Ontario.

To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:

HDJ.Final.Color

This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.