Category Archives: Field work

Denali field notes: Wildlife report

One of my followers on Instagram recently requested a list of all the wildlife I’ve seen in the park.  Since my stay has (for now) come to and end, it’s actually a great opportunity to look back on everything I’ve enjoyed while I’ve been here.  Which animal would you most want to see?  Let me know in the comments!

Mammals
1. Voles.  Unfortunately this is only animal I neither have photos of nor can ID to species.  When you see a vole the sighting usually goes something like this “look there’s a v-” and then it’s gone. Not much time to even wrap your head around it, frankly.  Though I did get one good look once when I got to see one swim across a puddle at my feet.

2. Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know I was quite enamored with their mighty middens.

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3. Short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea). Easily one of my favorites of the trip.  They are as hilarious to watch as they are adorable.  It’s like if squirrels rebranded their frenetic stress into something cool.

4. Collared pika (Ochotona collaris). Like hares and rabbits, although pikas may look rodent-like they are actually in the lagomorph family. Pikas can be found on rocky hillsides throughout the park.

5. Arctic ground squirrels (Spermophilus parryii). You can easily find these critters all over the Eielson visitor center, but they’re abundant across most of the park too

6. Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). There are at least a half dozen muskrats making their home in Horseshoe Lake alongside the beavers that keep it dammed it up.

7. Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).  You can learn more about these animals in this post.

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8. Red fox (Vulpes vulpes). I spotted a fox while en route from Wonder Lake to Eielson, but it was too far off to bother with a photo for.

9. Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). I was really, really hopeful to see a lynx but until now that’s resulted in nothing more than disappointment.  Finally success!

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The remaining 5 mammals I’ve already dedicated an entire post to.  Check it our here!

10. Grey wolf (Canis lupus)

11. Dall sheep (Ovis dalli)

12. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)

13. Girzzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

14. Moose (Alces alces)

Birds
15. Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus). These little winter warriors are everywhere, and are always tricking us into thinking they’re jays and then laughing at us for confusing such a tiny bird with a corvid.

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16. Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea).  I didn’t see any when I was here last March, so this was a lifer for me!

17. Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). A familiar face from Washington.

18. American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea).  I spotted this one with help from birder extraordinare Noah Strycker, who joined us for a few days to help with data collection.

19. Lincolns sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii).  These birds joined us on one of my favorite hikes of the trip.

20. White-winged crossbill (Loxia leucoptera).  Like all crossbills, these birds use their amazingly adapted bills to fiddle with spruce cones.  They move through areas in fairly large flocks chattering up a storm and raining cones down in their wake.  Then like a flash they are gone.

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21. Pine grosbeak (Periporphyrus erythromelas). The males can be easily mistaken for a crossbill at first glance, but their bulky size and beautiful song distinguishes them.

22. American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus). America’s only aquatic songbird.  We saw a pair of these birds mulling around Horseshoe Lake.

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23. Varied thursh (Lxoreus naevius). If you’ve never heard it, the varied thrush produces a very whistle-like tone sung in a single pitch for about two seconds. For me, these sounds are familiar forest sounds, but for many visitors these birds and their calls are completely foreign. As a result, evidently it’s not uncommon for visitors to mistake their calls for emergency whistles and report them to park law enforcement!

24.  American robin (Turdus migratorius). A turd I can’t live without.

25. American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis).  For all the dead trees around here I am frankly surprised we didn’t see more woodpeckers.  It took about five weeks before I finally saw my first one!  Then it was like we couldn’t shake them.

25. Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis). It would have been kinda a problem if these birds hadn’t made the list.

26. Boreal owl (Aegolius funereus).  This sleepy bae was very rudely awakened by some cranky Canada jays.  It just gave them a few robotic blinks and went back to sleep.

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27. Merlin (Falco columbarius).  These birds are so fun to watch, but I only ever caught the occasional glimpse while driving through the park.

28. Black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia). For such a pretty bird they are darn camera shy!

29. Greater scaup (Aythya marila).  I was a little late to see much in the waterfowl department but we did see a few of these in the kettle ponds near Wonderlake

30. Northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula).  This picture is from last spring, but I am claiming the right to never need another hawk owl photo again.

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31. Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). Don’t let their scientific name fool you.  These are serious murder birds and probably the number one killer of hares that we encountered.

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A goshawk chases a raven. 

32. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus).  Man I wish I have been able to capture one of these in full glory.  Such beautiful falcons.

33. Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus).  The state bird of Alaska! Like the hare and the stoat, these birds adopt a new look during the winter.  This one was early in the transition.

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34. Spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis).  I wrote about a cool encounter with these birds in an earlier post.

35. Common raven (Corvus corax).  Somebody find me a project so I can study these next!

36. Great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus). It’s within the realm of possibility that this particular GHOW killed one of our jays, but the evidence was circumstantial so I won’t hold them to account just yet.

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37. Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis).  Listening to them fly over the park as they begin their fall migration is a sound so beautiful that it hurts to think how few people will get to hear it in their lifetime. 

38.  Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Okay, so I didn’t take this picture in Denali, but I couldn’t have ended on a picture-less note! Plus, look at that handsome devil.  My goodness.

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Filed under Birding, Denali Diaries, Field work, Just for fun, Photography, 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

Denali field notes: Sexy birds, and a kitty

Working in Denali, there’s never a day when I get bored with the scenery or dismiss my great fortune in being able to do research here.  Certainly though, some field days are better than others either because the jays were particularly cooperative or because of some other wildlife highlight.  Today was one of those latter days.  The jays weren’t especially busy, and I’ve grown increasingly concerned that one of our females has died, but the park pulled through in delighting us in other ways.

Spruce grouse are such a daily occurrence that it’s borderline obnoxious, but only because of their habit of waiting until the very last minute to flush and then nosily flying into your face like some kind of helicopter poltergeist. If you can manage to detect them before their fun little game of surprise though, watching them play statue can be quite comical.  It’s hard not to imagine them sitting there, praying they don’t get noticed and wishing they were still velociraptors.

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A female spruce grouse

Today offered a very different kind of behavior outside of their usual repertoire, however.  I spied a male strutting about the undergrowth and couldn’t help but notice he was rather marvelous looking. The red comb over his eye was looking rather sharp, and his breast and tail feathers were fully erect.

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At first I wondered if he was perhaps trying to intimidate me, but I quickly discovered that I was not the lady he was trying to impress.

Given that spruce grouse don’t start breeding until April, I can’t really imagine what this female made of the whole situation.  Evidently though, nonbreeding season courtship displays are not uncommon in grouse, prairie chickens or other galliformes (heavy-bodied ground birds).  Most of what I’ve heard suggests that these displays are the work of young males, eager to practice their skills for next year.  I did come across one paper that suggested such early season displays in black grouse are actually important for securing territories, and confer higher reproductive success.1  In any case while I can’t speak for her, I’ll tell you I was 100% feeling his moves.

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Our second encounter was substantially shorter but by far more thrilling.  I barely captured even one rather derpy photo but I don’t think you need much more to understand my excitement.

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This was my first wild feline ever.  I hope it’s not my last lynx of the season, but either way I’m not complaining.

***

Literature cited

  1. Rintamaki, P.T., Karvonen E., Alatalo, R. V., and Lundberg A. (1999). Why do male black grouse perform on lek sites outside of the breeding season? Journal of Avian Biology 30: 359-366.

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Filed under Denali Diaries, Field work

Denali Diaries Part I: The Place

My first trip into the park, the Ranger warned us that we would fall in love with Denali.  I could tell her sincerity wasn’t manufactured, it was that kind of genuine love for something that can make cynical people feel a bit embarrassed, but I was careful to temper my expectations nonetheless. By the end of the trip (who am I kidding, more like after about 20min), however, I was ready to write my own effusive love note.  Denali is unlike any place I’ve ever been, and I hope I can share a small fraction of what seeing it in real life is really like, and offer a few tips for anyone planning their own trip.

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View from Eielson visitor center

The first thing to understand about the park is that it is managed quite differently than most other national parks in the country.  Unlike say Yellowstone where private vehicles, service vehicles, and tour buses clog the roads, in Denali private vehicles are only allowed for the first 15 miles of the park.  To see the other 77 miles you’ll need to take a bus. Buses come in three forms: Private tour buses offered by the hotels and resorts at the road’s end in Kantishna, NPS tan buses that offer interpretive, structured tours, or the NPS green buses that function like city transit buses.

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There are four possible destinations you can bus to in the park: Toklat at mile 53, Eielson at mile 66, Wonder Lake at mile 85 and Kantishna at mile 92. Out of my four separate trips into the park, I traveled as far as Eielson (8 hour round trip) twice and Wonder Lake (11 hour round trip) the other two times.

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No matter which destination you select, you’ll stop at one of Denali’s prettiest look-outs, Polychrome Pass.

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Things can change a lot at the end of the season. This is Polychrome Pass only a week after the above photo was taken.

Choosing which destination you want to go to is a matter of price, travel time, and priorities. My experience was that although Wonder Lake is beautiful, unless you can camp overnight, or have additional trips into the park planned, it wasn’t worth the full day trip. Instead, I would suggest spending more time off the bus at an earlier stop like Eielson.  The only exception would be if the weather is completely clear and your goal is to get phenomenal views of Mt. Denali, in which case continuing on to Wonder Lake is absolutely worth it.

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Mountain views on the way from Eielson to Wonder Lake.

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Less than 30% of visitors get to see even a section of Mt. Denali. We were exceptionally lucky to get an end of season full view.

If you’re balking at the idea of being stuck on a bus, I hear you, and based on the feedback I’ve already gotten I know that a “terrible bus ride” is a lot of people’s impression of what visiting Denali is like.  But there are three reasons to embrace the bus. The first is the whole reason for their existence: keeping people on buses rather than personal vehicles keeps wildlife safer.  Look no further than they annual stories out of places like Yellowstone to appreciate how necessary this is.  Second is that with more eyes you’re much more likely to spot wildlife, especially small or cryptic wildlife.  And lastly, and this is the real beauty of Denali, when I said that the green buses function like city transit buses I should have included “but better” because you can request to get off anywhere outside of Sable Pass which is a wildlife protection area.

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In Denali what do you do when you see a spectacular view and want to go experience it yourself?  You get off the bus and go to there.

Coming from Washington, it was a bit hard to understand why my Denali-based colleagues couldn’t offer very specific hiking suggestions.  My entire outdoor life has been ruled the the trail, so I was baffled when inquires about trail names were met with blank stares.  It wasn’t until I actually got onto the tundra that I appreciated the possibility of a trail-less adventure.  Of being able to shout “Stop!” at the first beautiful area that struck me and having the driver pull over to let me off.  If the brush is high you can walk the road, taking in the scenery at your own pace.  If it’s low, as it is between Toklat and Eielson, you can easily range off road and as deep into the park as you like.  With 6 millions acres at your feet, it would take nearly a lifetime to explore everything.

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Once you’re done, you head back to the road and flag down any green bus.  If you’re heading out of the park, there’s no need to even show them your ticket. Alternatively, you can get on a bus heading to your ticketed destination if you want to maximize your wildlife mileage as I did on a number of occasions.  As long as you’re attentive to the bus schedule and prepared to wait for an empty bus, you ping-pong back and forth like this as many time as you can fit into the day.  Although it adds up to a lot of driving, it can be one of the best ways to see wildlife because you’ll hit the park at different times of day and you can get a lot closer than you can on foot.

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With so much flexibility to explore such a beautiful area, it’s no mystery why people fall  in love with this place so easily.  And we haven’t even gotten to the wildlife yet.  For that you’ll need to stay tuned for Part II

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Filed under Field work, Just for fun, Uncategorized

Putting the “crow” in necrophilia

It’s early April 2015, and John Marzluff and I are standing with a film crew attempting to capture some footage of a crow funeral to compliment a story they are working on about Gabi Mann.  I’ve already set the dead crow on the ground, it’s placed just out from a cherry tree resplendent in springtime blossoms.  After only a few moments of waiting, the first crow arrives and alights on the tree, its head cocking around to get a better look at the lifeless black feathers beneath it.  I hold my breath for the first alarm call, ready for the explosion of sound and the swarm of birds that will follow it.  But it doesn’t come.  Instead, the bird descends to the ground and approaches the dead body.  My brow knits together in surprise but, ah well, I think, the shots of it getting so close and then alarm calling will make good footage.   The audience will have no questions about what it is responding to.  To my continued surprise, however, the silence persists; only now the crow has drooped its wings, erected its tail, and is approaching in full strut. No, no, this can’t be, I think.  But then it happens.  A quick hop, and the live crow mounts our dead one, thrashing in that unmistakable manner.  “Is it giving it CPR?” someone asks earnestly.  Still in disbelief, John and I exchange glances before shaking our heads and leaving the word “copulation” to hang awkwardly in the air.  After a few seconds another bird arrives to the cherry tree and explodes in alarm calls, sending our first bird into its own fit of alarm, followed by a more typical mobbing scene.  The details of what I’ve just witnessed as still washing over me when I hear John lean over to me…”You need to start your field season tomorrow.”

***

What crows do around dead crows is something I’ve dedicated much of my academic life to understanding.  In the course of my first study, my findings made for a nice clear narrative: crows alarm call and gather around dead crows as a way of learning about dangerous places and new predators.  Although there are other hypotheses we can’t rule out, certainly danger avoidance is at least partially driving this behavior.  An important detail of that original study though, is that because of the way it was designed, with a dangerous entity always near the dead crow, our live crows were never in a position to ever get very close to our dead stimulus. So the possibility that they do other things around dead crows, like touching them, couldn’t be explored.

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It’s been 3 years since that day in April and during that time it has taken every ounce of my power to remain tight lipped when journalists would ask “what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your studies?” Because until we were able to scientifically vet the prevalence of this behavior, I wasn’t willing to say much about it for fear of making necrophilia mountains out of mole hills. But with our findings now officially available in the journal Philosophical Transactions B, I am delighted to finally share what has been the most curious secret of my PhD: crows sometimes touch, attack, and even copulate with dead crows.

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Although this statement is jarring in its own right, what really gives it power is that we know this not just from that first fateful day with the film crew, but through an experimental study testing the response of hundreds of birds over several years.  That’s important because it allows us to say not just what they’re doing but possibly why they’re doing it (and at least why they’re not doing it).  So how did we conduct this experiment?

First, I dove into the literature to try and see if there was any precedent for this kind of behavior in other animals.  Although there have been no systematic studies, repeated observations of animals touching, harming, even copulating with their dead occur in dolphins, elephants, whales, and many kinds of primates, among some other animals.  Based on this, we hypothesized that this behavior may arise from: attempts to eat it, attempts to learn from it, or a misuse of an adaptive response (like territoriality, care taking, mate guarding, etc.). To test these ideas I searched the neighborhoods of Seattle until I found a breeding adult pair and (while they weren’t looking) presented one of four stimulus options: An unfamiliar dead adult crow, an unfamiliar dead juvenile crow, a dead pigeon or a dead squirrel.  The latter two stimuli being key in helping us determine if the behavior was food motivated, whereas the nature and prevalence of the interactions themselves (common, uncommon, exploratory, aggressive, sexual) helped us address the other hypotheses.  In all, I tested 309 individual pairs of crows; or in other words, once again I freaked out a lot of Seattle residents wondering why there was a woman with a camera, binoculars, and some dead animals loitering in front of their house for long periods of time.

Our main findings are that crows touched the animals we would expect them to eat (pigeons and squirrels) more than the dead crows, and although crows sometimes make contact with dead crows, it’s not a characteristic way they respond.  Because this behavior is risky, this seems to back up previous studies in crows that suggest that they are primarily interested in dead crows as a way of self preservation and avoiding danger.

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A crow tentatively pokes at one of our dead crows

That said, in nearly a quarter of cases, crows did make some kind of contact with dead crows.  Like with mammals, we saw that these behavior could be exploratory, aggressive and in rare cases even sexual (about 4% of crow presentations resulted in attempted copulations), with the latter two behaviors being biased towards the beginning of the breeding season.  Importantly, the latter two categories of interactions were rarely expressed independently, and it was often a mixture of the first two; in rare cases, all three.  In the most dramatic examples, a crow would approach the dead crow while alarm calling, copulate with it, be joined in the sexual frenzy by its presumed mate, and then rip it into absolute shreds.  I must have gone through a dozen dead crows over the course of the study, with some specimens only lasting through a single trial. It was an issue that may have been insurmountable if not for the donations of dead crows by local rehab facilities and the hard work of my long time crow tech turned taxidermist, Joel Williams.

It’s hard to witness this behavior without wondering if maybe the crows somehow don’t recognize that it’s dead and are instead responding like they might to a living intruder or to a potential mate.  So we tested that idea too, by conducting a second experiment where we presented either a dead crow or a life-like crow mount.  The differences in their response was clear.  They dive bombed the “live” crows and less often formed mobs, just like we would expect them to do for an intruder.  They also attempted to mate with the “live” birds but in these cases it was never paired with alarm calling or aggression.  So the issue doesn’t seem to be that they think it’s alive.

The fact that this behavior was rare, and often a mix of contradictory behaviors like aggression and sex, seems to suggest that none of those hypotheses I outlined earlier are a good fit for this behavior.  Instead, what we think happens is that during the breeding season, some birds simply can’t mediate a stimulus (the dead crow) that triggers different behaviors, so instead they respond with all of them. This may be because the crow is less experienced, or more aggressive, or has some neurological issue with suppressing inappropriate responses.  Only more experiments will help us determine what makes this minority of birds unique, and whether expressing these seemingly dangerous behaviors are the mark of the bird that is more, or less reproductively successful in the long haul.

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So while there’s still much more left to be explore here, I can finally say that this is without a doubt some of the most interesting behavior in crows I’ve ever witnessed.  I hope you will check out the publication here, and seek out all the other amazing work being reported in this special thanatology (death science) themed issue.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Breeding, Crow life history, Field work, Graduate Research, New Research, Science

Crows caught play wrestling

I’ve posted before about the generals of crow play behaviors, and it’s something I’m routinely delighted with as the kids of late summer start testing the limits of their world and their peers.  Adult play (or what I’m fairy confident are adults) is something I’ve encountered far less often, however.  Even more rare is a camera on hand to capture what’s usually a rather fleeting behavior.

You can imagine my excitement then, when yesterday not only was I present to witness either two adults or one adult and one subadult play wrestling in the grass but I also had a camera already rolling.  Granted the footage isn’t great (it’s an old camera and they were far away) but you can make out enough to see what’s happening.

Here’s a play by play of them moments leading up to and during the event.

  • I had been following a family group of three, presumably composed of two territorial adults and one subadult based on mouth lining color and general behavior (allopreening).
  • Two of them were foraging when they joined together and began to roll in the grass.
  • No audible calls were given, which I would expect if it had been a malicious attack.
  • You can see moments where one crow appears to have the upperhand and then willingly falls to its side to allow a shift in power and continue the play.
  • The roughhousing only stopped after the third bird flew overhead and gave a short loud ‘caw’.
  • After they disentangled they continued foraging near each other rather then taking chase, another indication that is was mutual and fun rather than antagonistic.

Pretty cool right?!

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Filed under Crow behavior, Field work, Just for fun, Uncategorized

#FieldworkFail

Recently, scientists have been taking to social media to share their stories of field work bloopers under the tag #fieldworkfail.  Things like dropping fecal samples on themselves, falling sleep while waiting for a turtle to arrive, only to be woken up by the curious turtle crawling over them, or darting a zebra and having it pass out in a precarious position.  Needless to say I have plenty of stories of my own so I thought I would share my top three favorite, or at least most memorable, field moments.

1) What’s crackin? 

At one point during my first field season I found myself spending a week’s worth of my mornings in Seattle’s International District between the hours of 5 and 7am.  Looking back, this was a bad idea.  So much so that at one point a cab driver pulled over to ask what I was doing and urge me, for the sake of my safety, to leave immediately.  But there were crows there and after months of time on the streets of Seattle I had developed an inflated sense of my safety and bad assery and decided to stick it out.  On one of my last mornings at this particular site, a women who I had previously encountered pan handeling took a seat on the bench next to mine, and proceeded to pull out what was unmistakably a crack pipe.  Unwilling to give up my data, I politely asked her to move but, much to my dismay, she didn’t seem very interested in listening.  High on crack, she then proceeded to do cartwheels over my peanuts and dance pants-less around my field site.  After a while she tuckered out and left me alone to do my work.  Looking back, I’m not sure if this was more a #FieldworkFail or a #KaeliLifeDecisionFail but it’s certainly not a field experience I wish to relive!

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

2) Sorry kids

During some of our experiments looking at the funeral behaviors, we would have volunteers stand around holding dead crows.  To protect their identity should the crows decide to hold a grudge, I had the volunteers wear rubber makes that covered their whole head.  One of my best volunteers was a fellow UW student, a mountain of a man who had a proclivity for wearing black and camo.  One of these field experiments was in Magnuson park which, if you live in Seattle, you know is one of our most curious parks.  It’s got all the features of a park you might expect like a play ground, soccer fields, trails that wander through peaceful restoration areas, but it’s also got some more curious features.  Old, WWII era airplane hangers, a block of abandoned school building and a few miscellaneous businesses just to name a few.  So when selecting a field site I picked a spot that seemed far from the potentially curious glances of parents or kids coming to enjoy a day at the park and instead nestled against one of the many buildings which appeared to have no foot traffic.  I was surprised then, when moments after starting our experiment a police car rolled up with its lights flashing.  Turns out the building I thought was rarely used was actually a pediatric dental office and I had planted my 6’6”, black and camo clad, dead bird holding, creepy mask wearing volunteer right under the side window.   Whoops!

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident...

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident…

3) Off with their heads!

During one of my preliminary field experiments we were looking at how crows respond to a mounted stuffed hawk.  We didn’t want them to see it before it was in position, so we would cover the bird with a piece of mesh camo fabric until moments before we were ready when a volunteer would run over and pull the cloth off.  Although the holes in the mesh were very small, as it turned out they were exactly the right size for the tip of the hawk’s bill to fit through.  One fateful day, my volunteer got more than she bargained for when the hawk’s bill caught on the mesh and the head ripped right off along with the cloth.  Unsure of what to do she balanced the head on the hawk’s shoulders and proceeded with the experiment.  All was well until right at the end, when one of the aggressively diving crows actually hit the hawk and knocked the head to the ground.   We’ll never know what was going through his or her mind at the achievement or what followed, but I like to imagine that on the block of 8th and Madison in downtown Seattle to this day juvie crows share in uncertain but excited whispers about the legend of the crow so powerful, it took the head of the a hawk in one fell swoop.

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Big Red is a little worse for the wear but she still gets the job done!

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Filed under Field work, Graduate Research, Just for fun

Yellowstone field experience

Last week I had the great pleasure of spending a week in Yellowstone National Park with both corvid expert, John Marzluff and predator-prey dynamic expert, Aaron Wirsing.  In addition to spending an entire week with these two, I also had meetings and saw presentations from folks like the golden eagle team of Al Harmata and Marco Restani, the head researcher of the wolf project, Doug Smith, Bison expert Rick Wallen, and wolf and cougar kill expert Dan Stahler.  It was an amazing week of breath taking wildlife and in depth expertise on what’s going on in the park.  This week, I thought it would fun to take a little break from corvids and just share some of the photos I took along with the stories and biological details that go with them.

Birds
Ungulates
Predators
Miscellaneous

Birds

To kick the trip off we headed outside of Bozeman, Montana to meet up with eagle researchers Dr. Al Harmata and Dr. Marco Restani.  They’ve been doing research on eagles for more than 30 years and know more about these birds than maybe anybody.  Right now, they’re conducting an ongoing study to look at the effects of lead poisoning on  eagles.  Although lead shots have been banned in waterfowl hunting and in some states like California, in most other places lead bullets are still used for other kinds of game.  The lead fragments end up in the gut piles hunters leave behind, or in the prairie dogs or other carnivores that their shooters had no intention of taking home.  Eagles scavenge these remains and can wind up with deadly levels of lead in their bloodstreams.  Elimination of lead from bullets will likely be a necessary step to protect eagles, though I expect a robust fight from the NRA and some hunting communities.

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For corvids, spring time means nesting time and the magpies were busy at work.  Unlike crows and ravens which build more traditional looking nests, magpies make nests with roofs, further protecting them from predators.  If that’s not cool enough, magpies are known to build several of these dome nests and have been observed moving both eggs and chicks between them.

The magpie's nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree

The magpie’s nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree

A bill-load of mud to finish off lining the nest

A bill-load of mud to finish off lining the nest

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Seeing peregrine falcons perched along the 520 bridge on my way to school is always a treat, but there’s something about seeing them in this setting that’s all the more spectacular.

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At lunch time we were greeted by John’s special raven friend, Big Guy, which has been visiting him in the park for the last 15 years.  He and his mate were also busy nest building though we were unable to locate it.

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Mountain bluebirds were such a spectacular addition of color to the park, and I was super lucky to be in the right place at the right time to snap this photo.

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Ungulates

When we first arrived to the park, we were surprised to be greeted by pronghorn.  John has been leading classes to Yellowstone for 15 years and had never seen them as far into the park as we did.  Pronghorn aren’t adapted to run very well in deep snow, so they generally avoid the higher elevations in the park until later in the year. The snow melt came incredibly early this year, however, allowing them to penetrate further into the interior of the park than usual.  While the level of early snow melt we experienced isn’t unheard of, it was unusual and fit the models that predict increased drought in this area as a result of climate change.

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Bighorn sheep were prolific across the park.  In the winter and spring, male bighorns form large groups while the ewes and lambs heard up to do their own thing. I never got tired of seeing those big curls!

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Bison are truly the iconic ungulate in the park.  Theirs is a story of an amazing comeback, and one that’s really not so different from wolves.  As of 1902 there remained only 23 bison left in the park, and but thanks to ranchers and the US Army administrators of YNP, new animals were brought in and over the next 50 years that small population grew to over a 1000 animals.  Now, the park supports about 4000 animals, and is considered the only place in the country that has both maintained bison since prehistoric times, and supports non-cattle hybridized bison.

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Right now, bison regulation within the park is subject to much debate due to the presence of brucellosis.  Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that was brought when settlers first introduced cattle to the west.  It results in the abortion of calves in animals like bison, elk and livestock.  It’s transmitted by contact with an infected mucous membrane, which generally happens when curious animals touch and smell the aborted calves.  Although it’s not fatal to the mothers, the aborting of calves represents a potential economic threat to ranchers.  Although elk are also important vectors of this disease, a rancher we spoke with echoed the opinion of the ranching community at large in saying that bison are the main problems and their departure from the park needs to be controlled.  As of 2002, the Sate and Federal government developed an inter-agency management plan to control bison and the spread of the disease, which basically means that many (think in the thousands) of animals are killed once they cross the boarder.  Lead park bison biologist Rick Wallen described to us the controversial nature of this tactic which results in, one the one hand, folks from the ranching community saying there isn’t enough being done, while on the other, members of the public decrying the park for killing such an iconic species.  Despite these culls, however, the park maintains a stable population of bison, which other than run-ins with lakes and geothermal features, are basically free from predation apart from one particular wolf pack which occasionally manages to take one down.

One of my colleagues illustrating the difference between cow (left) and bull (right) bison horns.  She also sports a radio transmitter used to track an individual bison across the park.

One of my colleagues illustrating the difference between cow (left) and bull (right) bison horns. She also sports a radio transmitter used to track an individual bison across the park.

A couple of bison playfully testing each other

A couple of bison playfully testing each other

One of the most interesting insights from Rick was the observation that bison both engage in what looks like altruistic behavior, like the time he witnessed a heard protect an injured female from wolves, to completely brutal behavior like the scene my classmates and I had the serendipitous opportunity to witness.

We happened upon this scene when checking the area for signs of a bear we had heard was scavenging some bison carcasses. Although we didn’t see the bear, we quickly noticed that there was a bison calf trapped in the water, and not too far from drowning by the sounds of its breathing. The banks of these lakes are incredibly slick, and it can be impossible for an animal to get out. We watched with bated breath, conflicted between rooting for the bison to make its escape and for it to drown, as that would mean an almost guaranteed bear and wolf sightings the following days. Finally after about 10 minutes the calf managed to pull itself from the water. While all this was going on, its heard had been nearby and quickly after the calf escaped began to approach it. We were all expecting a Disney style reunion but to our shock the entire heard proceeded to haze the calf! They pushed it about 100 m down the valley before finally relaxing their assault and letting the calf rest and start to graze. Since we didn’t see bears the next day, our best guess is the calf managed to regain its strength and make it through the night.

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A tree shows some ears after being used as a scratching post for a bison.

A tree shows some wear after being used as a scratching post for a bison.

Although much of our time in the park was dedicated to simply looking for, and observing wildlife, we also collected a couple of different kinds of data while we were there.  For the last 7 years this class has been conducting “elk follows” which means that we select an individual elk in the different parts of the park and record its activities for 15 min.  Later, we will use this data and match it up with data from the Wolf Project to ask questions about elk behavior, condition, and spatial use in light of the presence of wolves.  This big bull was taking a little rest and is a great illustration of the hardship of winter.  You can clearly see the low fat reserves on its rump, as evidenced by the outline of its spine and pelvic bones.

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This bull is a good example of one that’s already lost its antlers, and it’s probably feeling a little lighter than its 5-point companion, since elk antlers can weigh up to 40lbs!  Antlers are the fastest growing tissue and in the height of spring and early summer they can grow up to an inch a day.  One of our faculty members, Aaron Wiring, told us an incredible story of seeing a big 6 point bull being chased by wolves in an earlier trip, only to loose one antler during the chase. A little lopsided, the bull managed to fend them off until it was finally cornered against a tree when, you guessed it, the second antler fell off.  It was all over soon after that. Talk about bad timing!

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Predators

A coyote makes off with the leftovers of a bison carcass.  Coyotes are often killed by wolves, and they need to be extra mindful when in open spaces near kills sites like this.  Why wolves are so predatory towards coyotes and not foxes is something of a mystery.

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One of my favorite experiences while in the park was seeing the wolves.  There’s just something about seeing such an iconic animal that lifts your spirit.  The reintroduction of wolves was, and still is, incredibly controversial.  There’s no doubt that their presence on the landscape is a threat to ranchers and pet owners alike, but I was inspired by our talk with Hannibal, a rancher who lives adjacent to the park boundary.  Despite loosing three dogs and many sheep and calves to wolves, he maintains his position that they are a necessary part of the Western landscape and deserve a place along side he and his family.  After his daughter, Hilary Zaranek, started range riding (rounding up and sleeping with the heard at night) predation by wolves dropped to nearly zero and their three current dogs seemed very happy to me.  By shifting the ranching paradigm to one where multiple ranchers join herds and share space, range riders become a sustainable and economical option for ranchers.  Hannibal and Hilary are the forefront of this shift and their dedication to the presence of wolves was awe inspiring.

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While we were in the park we were privy to some pretty special changes going on within the packs. Inside the park, wolves are killed almost exclusively by other wolves.   Recently, the alpha male of the Lamar Valley pack was killed by members of the competing Prospect pack after he confronted them.  His death put the alpha female in an incredibly precarious position since she will be unable to hunt after she gives birth to her dead mate’s pups and in a few weeks.  Although her 6 current pups are nearly a year old they are still too young to provide for her during this time.  As a result, she is attempting to court 4 of the male members of the Prospect pack in an effort to gain a new alpha male that will help raise her pups.  Unlike lions which will kill the cubs of a competing male, wolves will help raise the former dad’s pups after they take over.  Some readers may even be familiar with the famous story of 8, the hero ‘little wolf” who did just this.  While we were in the park the female appeared to be courting a spectacular grey male, but shorty before we left we learned that he fell out of contention.  Who the next alpha male is is up to the alpha female, and only time will tell who she chooses.

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The effects of wolves in the park have been profound and their necessity to maintain a balanced and healthy ecosystem is unquestionable.  For more information on the wolves’ effects on the Yellowstone ecosystem check out this Ted talk.

One of the most interesting things we did was meet up with wolf expert Dr. Dan Stahler.  He and fellow carcass expert, Kai, lead us to a recent cougar kill and described how to identify kills as either wolf or cougar and showed us the kinds of data they collect off such kills.  Key signs off cougar kills are puncture marks around the throat, neat, cleanly picked bones, and characteristic caching (or covering and hiding) of the carcass.  Wolf kills, on the other hand, are not hidden, show signs of hemorrhaging around the animal’s back legs, and the carcasses are found dismembered.  This particular cow elk was killed and partially eaten by a cougar before being discovered by wolves and other scavengers.

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Miscellaneous

A badger skull found while hiking the bighorn lambing grounds on the edge of the park boundary.

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On our last day I spotted a couple of yellow-bellied marmots, marking the fist time John has seen them inside the park during this trip.  I’ve never gotten such a good look at these little animals and I must say they’re very pretty!

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Antler drops are an important source of calcium for many animals in the park, and this particular one shows its age with a beautiful patina of lichen.

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A bison carcass lays peacefully in its resting place of Lamar Valley.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Birding, Field work