Category Archives: Canada jays

Watching puppies…for science

When I was still in Alaska back in the fall, my social media was brimming with pictures of the kinds of things you might expect from a biologist studying birds in Denali National Park.  Photos of bears, Canada jays, arctic tundra, caribou, snowshoe hares, ravens, mountain and…puppies? Not just the occasional pupper photo either, but piles of puppies, puppies on parade, and videos of puppies doing the kinds of pupper things that make even the most cold-souled of us go red with glee.

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Most of you were probably thinking, “IDK why this is happening and I don’t care, just give me more,” but a few of you may have found it a bit odd that I appeared to be spending so much of my time with doggos rather than the birds I was in Alaska to study.  But, no matter which camp you were in, let me take a moment to clear the air and confirm that my time around the puppies was purely professional.

Let’s start with a fact that is not well known among the general public, but is crucial to the story: Denali is the only National Park with a full-time sled-dog team.  In fact, Denali has had a mushing team since 1922, starting merely five years after the park’s inception.  At that time, the team was responsible for patrolling the park boundary for poachers.  Today, the dogs help deliver supplies and humans to places within the park that become difficult to reach during the winter months.

 

In any given year, the park is home to about 35 dogs, which when not working live in the kennels near park headquarters.  As a park visitor, you can go to the kennels to meet the dogs and see mushing demonstrations.  Needless to say between its cultural significance and popularity with the public, the kennels at Denali are a source of pride and joy for many park visitors and staff.

 

There is one aspect of the kennels, however, that makes their presence a bit tricky from a wildlife perspective.  Like all US National Parks, Denali maintains a dogmatic “no-feeding wildlife” policy.  This is meant to keep wildlife wild and prevent dependency and human conflict.  Feeding time at the kennels, however, can be a real smorgasbord for the local corvids, particularly if some of the dogs are slow or reluctant to eat.  How such food supplementation may be affecting the breeding success (or mortality) of the jays is therefore of keen interest to my work.

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In partnership with kennel staff, my tech and I sought to document which birds were attending the daily feeding at the kennels. I will do the same come the winter field season, and ultimately we hope to determine if such attendance has any impact on how many fledglings those pairs are able to produce.

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So, as I said, while visiting the kennels and the park’s annual litter is all fun and games for most, for me it was serious, professional science business and nothing more.  Can’t you tell?

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Filed under Being a scientist, Canada jays, Field work, Wildlife

You need to know more about jay spit

Look, I’m a reasonable person.  I know what you’re thinking.

“Literally never has it occurred to me I might know too little about jay spit.”

But here’s the thing: it’s actually super interesting and you really can’t understand Canada jays without knowing about their saliva.  It would be like trying to understand the internet without cat videos-you just can’t do it.  So trust me when I tell you this is the information you didn’t know you needed.

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In the early 1960’s Walter Brock was examining Canada jay corpses when he discovered that they have massive salivary glands on par with the ones found in woodpeckers.1 Such generously sized glands are found in no other songbird.  Furthermore, like the woodpeckers, it’s not just that Canada jays make a lot of saliva, but they make a lot of sticky saliva.  At the time this discovery was made, it was already known that the enlarged glands of woodpeckers served to allow for a foraging tactic called “tongue probing” where, like anteaters, the birds use their long sticky tongues to extract food from narrow crevices.  Although Canada jays don’t have especially long tongues, the ability to tongue probe seemed the most parsimonious explanation for this strange adaptation, and Brock suggested that this strategy may actually be the key to the jays’ winter survival.  A study a few years later examining their foraging behavior revealed that they don’t feed in this manner, however.  They feed more or less the same way the other corvids do.2  It seems instead, that it’s what they do with the food after that’s different.

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Rather than using their copious amounts of weird, sticky spit for acquiring food, it’s used for depositing it.  If you watch a jay closely after it’s got a bit of food you’ll notice it seems to have missed Emily Post’s memo about chewing with your mouth closed. Over the course of a few seconds you’ll see the food peek out from the bill as the bird moves it around inside its mouth.

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This jay picked up this bit of food about 60sec before this photo was taken.  Now it’s working it around with its tongue, coating it in sticky saliva.

Once sufficiently spit coated, the bird will deposit the food blob (called a bolus) onto the foliage or trunk of a tree.  No matter the material or angle, once the spit dries the food is safely secured come hell or high-water.  Because these caches are pretty small there’s little fear that many will be found.  More importantly, by stashing food high in the trees instead of burying them into the ground like many other cache-dependent corvids do, Canada jays can thrive in areas that receive much heavier snowfall, allowing them the title of the most northern residing jay in North America.

Here’s where it all really comes together though.  If you’ve seen me write about Canada jays before you’ll have noticed that it’s almost inevitable that I’ll use the phrase “Cute little faces” at some point to describe them.  But have you ever wondered why? Why do they have such cute little faces?  While jays do feed more or less in the same way as other corvids the one exception is that they don’t hammer at objects.  If you’re ever given a crow or a Steller’s an unshelled peanut you’ll know exactly the motion I mean. Without the need the hammer objects, or dig holes for burying food, Canada jays don’t need the heavy bills their cousins do.2  Instead they have the blunt little bill that helps give them their characteristic baby-faced look.  So not only is their spit responsible for their ability to tough it out in some of the harshest winter environments this continent offers, but it also means they get to look super cute while doing it.

So like I said, you don’t really know Canada jays until you know a thing or two about their spit.

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Literature cited

  1.  Brock WJ. (1961). Salivary glands in the gray jay (Perisoreus). The Auk 78: 355-365
  2. Dow DD. (1965). The role of saliva i food storage by the gray jay.  The Auk 82: 139-154

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Filed under Birding, Canada jays, Corvid trivia, Diet, Field work, Jay behavior, Science