Monday, February 18, 2013

Scrub Jays, Seed Hoarders, Plant Propagators & All Round Forest Promoters

Western Scrub Jay or Pinyon Jay varieties of the same Species
Photo by Yale School of Forestry

The word/term Species is such a fuzzy word. It often gets muddled depending on the subject, the one using it and the context under which it is being used, the term could possibly have 16 different meanings. Why there is even this concept of terms in "Molecular Species". Who would have thought it. In some ways the subject of the great variety within the same species is what I touched on when I wrote the post, "Is it really "Taxonomic Exuberance" or "Phenotypic Plasticity" ?" In the science world there is a rush to find newer species and be forever immortalized as the discoverer. There is a lot of fame, glitter and glory for such on individual, but does all this pursuit of that precious prize cause a fudging of the truth at times ? That is often the subject of discussion and debate. Remember those infamous Finches that Darwin speculated about ? Who could forget. But even the Grants who researched them for 30 years on the Galapagos Islands generally found nothing more than mere oscillation in the epigenetic response to changes in the environment. More importantly for the average person is, what can we actually observe in the field minus all the assumptions and assertions which in reality are not explanations at all ? So what about Scrub Jays ? Are there really difference species ? There are many unique varieties, all of which have many of the same personality traits which characterize just who they are more than what they are. Yes there are different markings and shapes, but basically they all seem to come from the same mold. Much like the Florida Scrub Jay you can see below here. 

image: CSS Dynamic

Florida Scrub Jay
But this is also a continuation of sorts with an earlier post today I had on my most favourite Pinyon pine tree, the Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrafolia). I didn't want to corrupt that post by going off topic, but the Western Scrub Jays are as much an important factor in the life cycle of the Parry Pinyon habitat as are other Jays around the globe are to other ecosystems. Given the latest News Reports on scientific studies revealing that now most all Pinyons are having the inability to reproduce viable seed, such findings no doubt should lead many to conclude that entire ecosystems will disappear as we have known them. While the Pinyon Jay's diet has a great variety of seeds and acorns on it's menu from which to choose from, clearly their numbers will be drastically reduced given the disappearance of huge reduction in Pinyon/Juniper habitat.

Recently there was an article from the University of Cambridge in it's online Research News section dealing with the subject of Eurasian Jays. I never knew there was such a bird, but why not ? It's appearance of course is close to the common Western Scrub Jay I am use to seeing and it has all the same bad boy nonsense reputation of the Scrub Jays of North America. I joke about their reputation because of their bad habitat of raiding things and taking off with them link the Cat Food in my former Cat's food dish. I'd hear a commotion out on the front deck and run out there clapping my hands and shooing the Scrub Jay away. Hardly afraid of me, the bird would fly off to the end of the deck and land on the railing, then proceed to curse and swear at me in what seemed like the garbled sounds of a Grackle with a sore throat. I'd also blame them for raiding my garden after planting seed, but I'll get to that further on down the page. Back to this Eurasian Jay. This hoarder is an expert at strategies for preventing others from stealing off which food they have hoarded for future pantry usage. Below is the link to the entire article:

Photo by University of Cambridge

There is something else interesting about these birds which I would imagine most of the birds in this family possess. Remembering where their caches are after planting. But I've also wondered if they don't also choose a specific Chaparral species for planting specific types of seeds or nuts. That is intelligence of course, but also it's important that they don't remember where they have planted each seed or not, otherwise forests wouldn't be born. We often take for granted that though they are not created like us, they never the less possess an amazing amount of brilliance even though much of it may be contained within the frame work of encoded instinctive behavior. Still they are quite capable within this frame work at a sort of free will in choices and decision making. Take a long look at this video which is quite entertaining. It shows the Eurasian Jay in a pen and an experiment at planting nuts. There is no listed link, so here is the link address:

The Eurasian Jay in the above video is so funny. Did you notice he had the ability to remember each pot he planted the nut in ? He chose a newer fresh pot each time. Watching this video, I suddenly had a wicked idea come across my mind. If the gardening sales business times get rough for  Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery  or  Tree of Life Native Plant Nursery, they can simply lay the shade house workers off and hire cheaper labor who will work for peanuts like a couple of Western Scrub Jays to do essentially the same thing with seed flats. Okay, just a thought. Very kool video though, wish it was longer to see if the bird would fill up every single pot and remember which ones were left. Another interesting video is of a Western Scrub Jay actually pecking out the nuts from a Peanut shell. Peanut shells are easy to deal with, but I've always wondered how they manage harder pine nuts and oak acorn shells. Actually I have observed when they deal with them and I'll tell you, but first watch how they tackle the problem. 

animation: US Forest Service
I was always puzzled for a long time as to how the Western Scrub Jay uses it's food cache in the wintertime. How do they get such hard nuts out of their shells. Of course a peanut is easy, but they don't have the sane hardware for a beak as Sparrows, finches and other seed eating birds who crush and grind their food to open the casing and exposing the kernel or even a woodpecker who is champion of them all. I mean those other birds can do some damage easily to any hard shell. So how does a Scrub Jay accomplish it ? Well I started to say something about is here earlier today in this post about -  Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrafolia) - but I decided to create a newer post than meander off topic over there.  I got a first clue from planting various pine seeds my self by out planting them directly into the ground, as opposed to nursery pots or flats. Of course I had to create a wire mess to protect them not only from Scrubs Jays, but countless other ground foraging birds. I was specifically looking for exact timing of seed swelling, shell splitting and taproot emergence long before any above ground leaf appearance. I discovered that the actual pine seedling appeared in end of February, even the Torrey Pines, but actual root swelling and seed coat splitting with root tip emergence was early December. While continually inspecting this area, I noticed not only were Scrub Jays milling around and poking in and around their own caches, but so were Towhees and Thrashers along with other ground foraging birds. Quite often I'd find acorns and pine nuts with their shells and root left intact, but the nut inside completely gone. As the seed kernel inside swells from moisture and begins to split the hard shell, it's formerly complex proteins are broken down only to become less complex as a result of water's action in initiating the growth cycle.
 I realized it was only then that the birds could deal with it much more easily, but fortunately they don't get all of them, which is how forests progressively make headway. The hydrated action of the seed is a growth trigger for the softening of the seeds and swelling them making their nuts split and reveal a much softer tissue, reminded me of why we humans soak hard shell beans or peas over night, some of us like me allow it to run to the point of having the taproot stems emerge. This further lessens the complexity of certain protein molecules & if done properly, can eliminate the sugar-like compounds called oligosaccharides or Phytates which will prevent the beans from giving you *cough-cough* gas. Both human and animals have a difficult time digesting these complex compounds without the natural processes of hydrating (soaking), sprouting and fermenting components which make nutrients more readily available to all of us. I won't go any further on this here, but I'll create a specific post dealing with this in the future as it does explain how the bad science of Industrial agriculture mandating a strict grain fed diet in massive feedlot production of beef, pork and other animals is NOT advantageous and yet it does strongly contribute to greater methane emissions than would normally be found out in nature. Joel Salatin was right, herbivores need a mostly grass fed diet, not grains. But back to ALL Scrub Jays, the question is, how do they know this ? Or do they ? How do other birds who raid their seed and nut caches know this ? For the most part they don't, but what, how and why they do is mostly encoded into their DNA for their behavior pattern and how it got there is an entirely another subject, but nevertheless it's there. Still, it is interesting and should provide more incentive for further research and practical application in a wide variety of uses, even habitat restoration techniques. Every single component has to be respected and that includes the chaparral plant community which is known to be demonized and getting a bad rap. Okay, more later, I promise. Look for a future post -> "Fart-Hinder" (Swedes will know what this means - *smile*)

Purdue University
 Something happened in my garden that only then did I fully understood the other benefits of the seed or nut being left in the ground long enough, both oak and pine nuts swell and split which makes it easier. It clearly made sense, but something else very important confirmed later this to me and really drove home the point. When spring finally comes around in late April early May, I always had a garden on my property. Planting Sweet Corn was always a must and like always I pre-soaked the seed and inserted them evenly spaced apart down inside the furrow about a foot and a half apart. As a general rule I always got emergence around 7 or 8 days, but before I could see them pushing through, I noticed there were these little holes drilled into the ground right where I had planted each one, but it was odd because I had never seen a tip popping through or seen what was eating the seeds. My first blame game was the Western Scrub Jays, but I was wrong. Later just after putting another round of pre-soaked swollen seeds into the same barren rows, I spent a more keen eye at the end of day six to see what or who was doing the dirty work. Hidden behind a scrub oak for most of the morning, there he was , a California Towhee and even a Western Thrasher got into the game. They got a few seeds, but then I saw what exactly they were looking for. It was that first tiny yellowgreen spiraling spike of corn seedling pushing upwards through the soil level.  Never underestimate a Bird's Eye to see anything minute and tiny to us. Looking for such clues as seed germ emergence of the immature sprout by birds that there may be a juicy tasty morsel underground that is ready to be harvested. Incredibly most seeds or even animals and birds that hatch from eggs, there is either a nutritious yoke sac or seed kernel left over at the time of emergence which functions as food stores to the young organism until it can actually feed & fend for itself. But the birds (and no doubt squirrels) all some how know this too, although it's mostly instinctive. That's why they are always scratching around under the dander beneath a tree or shrub looking for goodies. Once I scratched around there trying to figure out what they were after, I found no real insects since many times it was still winter dormancy or hibernation for many. Suddenly I realized it was the early germinating seeds and nuts they were after. Kool!

See, there's still enough meat on the bone to satisfy any wild creature which that first sprout tip breaks the soil level.

Recent articles on the climate change effects on vegetation, especially pinyon pines has some disturbing negative trends which are breaking down these ecosystems. It could have dreadful effects on creatures that depend on them as this paragraph from the article from University of Colorado in Boulder relates. 
Source: Southwest regional warming likely cause of pinyon pine cone decline

"Wildlife biologists say pinyon-juniper woodlands are popular with scores of bird and mammal species ranging from black-chinned hummingbirds to black bears. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Northern Arizona estimate that 150 Clark's Nutcrackers cached roughly 5 million pinyon pine nuts in a single season, benefiting not only the birds themselves, but also the pines whose nuts were distributed more widely for possible germination."
Can you imagine the value of the industriousness of these Jay bird workhorses and the major contribution the offer any and all ecosystems around the globe ? If we just contemplate 5 plus million pine nuts harvested and planted, the majority of which feeds not only the Jays & Clark's Nutcrackers, but all other birds and animals with just enough of the seed germination and further culling out where simply a few become future mature pine nut producing adults. It's a perfect system when fully functional. Humans should be glad that such birds have an instinctive obsession with collecting things no matter what and for how long. The natural world (both plant and animal) is dependent on their greediness. But it's not really selfishness and greediness is it ? I think that those words should only associated with humans !!! 


Further Reference Reading:

Little Did I Know at the Time, Parry Pinyon was only the Beginning! 
Is it really "Taxonomic Exuberance" or "Phenotypic Plasticity" ?


  1. Just found your blog from your comment on my blog, and am delighted to read what you're writing! It's fascinating to see how birds will spot the tiniest evidence of food, and then look for more of the same.

    1. LOL, believe it or not I just visited back to your blog and replied. I also put you on my blogs that I follow list, thanks.

      I'm going back to the states this April to document some environmental changes, I really miss the chaparral plant community.



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