Searching for Scrub-Jays

It’s a cold, windy morning at Archbold. The sun has not yet risen and the clouds are tinted purple. I’m riding with Dr. Reed Bowman, director of Archbold’s Avian Ecology Program, on the morning of the November 2014 Florida Scrub-Jay Census. This particular census is much colder and windier than usual, and Dr. Bowman and I are chilled even in our jackets and gloves. We know that finding the jays is going to be tough in this weather. Our mission is to locate all members of 18 scrub-jay families, using only a truck, binoculars, a notebook, and a jar of peanuts. In total, the census team is trying to locate over 200 birds in 85 families, all in one day!

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In cold, windy weather, scrub-jays don’t get up and look for food, and if they don’t do that, we can’t find them. Just as the sun rises, we arrive at the first jay territory. We walk around, imitate the birds’ alarm call, and wait for several minutes, but we neither hear nor see any jays. We get back in the truck, drive to another site, bushwhack to the territory, and repeat. No jays. At another territory, Dr. Bowman even stands on the truck to get a better view. Still no jays. It starts to rain.

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I thought Dr. Bowman would cancel the census, but we kept on going. Drive, walk, call, wait, repeat. We do this for an hour until at last, a scrub-jay calls back! Dr. Bowman launches into action, calling back to the jays and hurrying towards them. When we finally see the jays, Dr. Bowman pulls out the jar of peanuts and tosses a couple high into the air. Researchers are careful not to change the jay’s diet and behavior with too many peanuts. Each bird receives only 1-2 peanuts per month, just enough to teach them to associate food with Dr. Bowman’s call. While they are feeding, Dr. Bowman watches through his binoculars and starts mumbling to himself, “Silver dash green red. Purple green dash silver. Orange yellow dash silver.” No, he hadn’t gone crazy, he was identifying the jays.

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Each spring. Dr. Bowman and his team locate every single Florida Scrub-Jay nest in their study area at Archbold Biological Station. When the eggs hatch, the team bands each chick with one aluminum silver band that is issued by the USGS’s Bird Banding Lab and one plastic color band. The silver one has tiny numbers etched on it, but must be read close-up; the colored ones are for identifying individual jays in the field, such as during censuses like this one. If the young survive for 85 days, they then get banded with 1-2 more color bands so that each bird has its own unique color combination. The censuses enable the lab to track the movement and survival of each marked bird throughout its life.

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After a flurry of blue feathers, Dr. Bowman identifies every member of the family we were looking for and heads back to the truck. Despite the terrible weather, the jays are finally becoming active, and we are able to return to the territories from earlier in the morning and find the missing birds.

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Archbold is proud to have the longest continuous study of a population of marked birds in North America. Since 1969, researchers have marked every single Florida Scrub-Jay at Archbold Biological Station and counted them all each month. Our research is crucial to the conservation of this threatened species.

By following the jays throughout their lives, as the census enables us to do, we see where they live and how well they can survive and reproduce under certain conditions. This gives us enormous insights into the environmental and evolutionary pressures that helped shape their behavior, social systems, and demography and help us predict the conditions, that might be achieved through management, under which their populations will thrive.” -Dr. Reed Bowman

To learn more about Florida Scrub-Jays, check out this video that Archbold recently made!

All research on Florida Scrub-Jays at Archbold Biological Station is conducted under permits issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Written and photographed by Evan Barrientos- Environmental Education Intern at Archbold Biological Station

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