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:
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.