Gray is the new black

For the past six years, my life has been dedicated to the “funerals” of birds perpetually dressed for the occasion.  This pursuit has provided some of the highlights of my life and lodged crows so deep in my heart I suspect they might show up on an ultrasound.  The still vastly untapped world of comparative thanatology (the study of animal death) is one I have every hope of returning to, but I’d be fooling myself if I didn’t admit I was ready for a change.  There is much more wildlife and natural history to be had in the urban jungle than people realize, but as a fieldsite it can start to grate on your mind and spirit.  The suspicious onlookers, inattentive texters, cranky homeowners, fastidious leaf blowers, relentless piles of dog shit, and generous helpings of stuff you couldn’t even imagine, like the truck that blew bubbles as it drove around the block and always seemed to drive by just as I started the experiment.  After so many years, this work left me yearning for a new set of challenges and maybe the opportunity to scrub earth from my feet, rather than the film of carbon, copper, and zink that peels invisibly off the passing cars.

You can imagine my great delight then, when I was offered the opportunity to conduct a year long PostDoc position in Denali National Park, studying the foraging behavior of Canada jays; adorable corvid cousins to my beloved crows.  The project is a collaboration between the University of Washington’s John Marzluff and the National Parks Service.  Apart from its brief duration, the project is everything I wanted.  A complete change of scenery, a new and challenging study question, loyalty to my favorite family of birds, and limited field seasons that would not require me to uproot my family.  Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity.


At mile 66 of the park road, the Eielson visitor center offers spectacular views.

In a nutshell, the big picture question we are after is: are rising and fluctuating temperatures reducing the shelf life of the food jays store to survive the winter? The worry is that without a deep freeze to keep the perishable things that jays cache like mushrooms, meat scraps, and berries well preserved, their food is going bad earlier in the winter than in years past.  Since they start breeding well before the spring food flush, this would be a major problem.


Although toxic to humans, the jays are happy to dine on the iconic amanita mushroom.

Answering this question will take years of study, so don’t expect any headlines from me.  Instead, my research will help fill the existing knowledge gaps and create a foundation on which future studies can build.  Namely our goal is to document what and where Denali’s jays are caching.  To accomplish this I, along with a tech, are spending 6-8 weeks in the park this fall to document the kinds of foods they cache and where they stash them. Then returning in “spring” (March, but there’s still 6ft of snow on the ground) to watch them retrieve caches. To the great relief of my parents, this fieldwork will not take place in the more predator rich back country of the park, but rather the front country near park headquarters, where over the past two years the park’s avian ecologists have been working to identify and color-band the existing pairs.

Documenting these activities is a textbook example of “Easier said than done”. The birds move quickly and can disappear out of sight with magician-like talent. There is often dense foliage blocking my view, and what they are eating is typically small.  Seeing what/if/where in terms of foraging and caching can sometimes be done in the field with binoculars, but the main way we are accruing data is by using a video camera with a powerful zoom to film the behaviors we see, and then rewatching it in slow motion to try and tease out details we missed in the field.  Attempting to get this stuff on film comes with its own set of challenges though, and the majority of our film clips are well, see for yourself…(NSFW language).

Out of the dozens of bad clips we get each day though, there are enough containing some actual data to start seeing a meaningful picture of what’s happening (like the one below), and to keep us pressing forward. We’ve already documented food items that have surprised the more senior jay scientists we are collaborating with, and I’m starting to envision what kinds of questions future researchers could ask based on my work here.

Needless to say, I am tremendously excited for this new, albeit short-lived chapter of my life. It’s a delight to be challenged by a new set of questions and contribute to something with more direct conservation implications.  And the new office isn’t half bad either.

It even comes with the usual cast of colorful office characters.  There’s the chatterbox:


Pine squirrel

And the prankster that thinks it’s funny to hide around corners and jump out at you, damn near scaring you out of your skin:


Spruce grouse are slow to flush, preferring to wait until the last possible moment before exploding out of the shrubbery.

And of course, there’s that one grumpy gus that is constantly paranoid someone is going to steal her lunch despite labeling her food like a dozen times.  “No one wants your crappy squirrel, Brenda!”


Northern hawk owls are among the few daytime hunting owls.

Plus everyone else that’s just trying to mind their p’s and q’s and make it through the day.

So, while I miss my crows a great deal (did I mention there aren’t crows in Denali at all?) I think this new gray look is suiting me quite well.



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17 responses to “Gray is the new black

  1. Just saying I love your blogs, Facebook page, Twitter etc. I love your subjects most of all. I also really enjoy your style of words and writting it’s very factual/informative of course. It’s also written and spoken very naturally and your sense of humor shines through. Thank you, thank you and thank you again.

  2. Christina Wilsdon

    How exciting for you! I look forward to following your new adventures (and will keep the crows here up to date on them 😉 Cheers!

  3. Nice article. Here in Estes Park CO, Scott Rashid, director of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute , just mentioned that we’re seeing fewer and fewer Canada Jays/Grey Jays in Rocky Mountain National Park. Your post gives me some insight as to why that is. In an article Scott wrote for the Sept 2018 newsletter, he noted: “I moved to Colorado in 1989. At that time, I was amazed at the number of Gray Jays that I could see within the spruce-fir forests of Rocky Mountain National Park and how easy it was to see the corvids each year. Well, in the past several years, Gray Jays are becoming harder and harder to find. In fact, I only saw Gray Jays once last year and that was in a place known as the Lake Irene picnic area. I went to the above mentioned picnic area twice in August and found no Gray Jays. I believe the birds are declining due to a number of factors including loss of habitat and loss of food, as the seeds that the birds rely upon for food are not creating seeds anymore and the birds have no food, and therefore are declining.” Scott is also doing research on American Crows, so you might want to get in touch with him. Thanks for your excellent blog!

  4. Nancy

    Congratulations on your new opportunity in Denali National Park. I lived in Alaska in nearly 30 years in such places as Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Barrow, and miss many things about that beautiful state, including the huge Ravens that inhabit many areas of the state. Best of luck to you!

  5. Alix Reeves

    Congratulations on the Denali post! How amazing an opportunity……but it’s one you set yourself up for by following your bliss with so much vigor.

    LOVE your amazing pics, and hope you have a warm place for the winter!!??

    By the way, I had a prolonged 4 minute “verbal” exchange with a raven who I feed. It’s a pair of ravens, but there is one who is much more brazen and communicative.

    My husband and I look forward to more from you and Denali!!

  6. Wow Kaeli, that looks like an Awesome opportunity, but watch out for the Mosquitoes, they are almost as big as you are! Congratulations on finishing your Doctorate Doctor Swift.

  7. A Dexter

    Another nice read at the start of my day. As the first post said, I really do enjoy your writing, perspective, and humor. Denali gives you a chance to keep a wider view. Many Ph.D.’s learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing; I say that as a Ph.D. so I have some knowledge whereof I speak.
    I’ve said it before, I look forward to your first book.

  8. Andy Pym

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and watching the videos earlier today. I look forward to your next post on them.

    I had a wonderful encounter with a raven down on Exmoor Nat. Park today. It was flying high overhead and was very vocal. I have so much love for those birds.

  9. Mary Dunlap

    Enjoyed this column. The little I know about blue jays comes from being a guest of Ann and Bil GIlbert when he was researching coati mundi in Arizona in 1970s. He spent time at Kitt Peak observing the coati and bringing kibble and miniature marshmallows to entice the chula bears. It was hard to keep the jays away. He did mention in his book “Chulo” p. 83 (I had to look it up) that jays were among the wild creatures competing with the chulos for food. And that the jays had the upper “hand” in any food competition. Stuff you know and I am recalling. Best to you in your new ventures. I enjoy reading your posts.

  10. franklin's other kite

    … more inspired writing, pics and vids; really — like watching art and science finally get its stuff together

    WARBLER’S APPRENTICE: Should I remind her what they say about “gray”?

    MUSE OLGA TARANTOLDYA: (sighs) You’re asking me like I’m really here?

    WA: Apparently. Gray is just black and white in need of cleaning.

    MOT: (shakes head) Oh. You “are” the Hemingway of the pithless, post reply.

  11. Tea

    Wait – what? NO crows in Denali? Why is that?

  12. Stacy Rathbun

    “No one wants your crappy squirrel, Brenda!” hahahahaha!

  13. Elizabeth davies

    Fantastic! Congratulations on the new chapter! Just don’t forget us, we still want to know about your work. Good luck too!


  14. The Blair Witch-like video combined with your profane and running commentary was the laugh I really needed this evening! (Ah… The unromantic underbelly of fieldwork…! )

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