Vail Daily column: When ‘bird-brained’ is a compliment
In between the burst of fall color and the blanketing of snow, we find ourselves in a true mud season. Instead of the colorful roof of quaking leaves, we are now more exposed to the cold fall sky as we travel our local trails, pulling our collars up around our necks and boots about our ankles. Once hidden among the tree tops, any birds that have learned to adapt to our long winters are now more exposed. When earlier we would only hear the gurgling croaks of Corvids, our local ravens, crows, magpies, jays and nutcrackers, we can now see them taking rest above our heads, probably more curious of us than we are of them.
This particular family of birds has a bad reputation, often considered to be noisy nuisances or pests, and they found almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Their widespread success is due largely to their unusual intelligence, which is on par with canids like wolves, coyotes and dogs.
When many birds migrate to escape our harsh winters, most of these hardy tricksters stay throughout the season. Through being clever, playful and smart, they have learned to adapt to our changing landscape. While some birds in this family, like the magpies, crows and ravens, are scavengers, ravens have also been observed cooperating with others to hunt game too large for one bird. They are also known to dine on eggs and nestlings of other birds, as well as on rodents, insects and worms.
They also commonly forage on human trash, sometimes learning to unzip lunch boxes and get into other containers. If they are after carrion, or dead animals, then they will sometimes taunt other animals such as coyotes, nipping at their tails and luring the canines away from the meal, so that other birds can gorge.
In winter, ravens will roost together after foraging during the day. They are often seen in small groups or pairs, and are thought to mate for life. Crows and magpies are equally widespread and are often seen dining on carrion and insects similar to their raven cousins. Other Corvids, however, take alternative actions to prepare for the cold season. Clark’s nutcrackers, pinion jays and Steller’s jays keep busy storing seeds for the winter. The Clark’s nutcracker’s strong, thick beak is used to dig into pinecones. Seeds retrieved are stashed away in a pouch beneath their tongue, and buried across the forest floor and in the snow within a 2.5 mile range. Another Corvid, the Gray jay, will cache seeds as well, but they also use their sticky saliva to glue seeds to the trunks of trees.
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These birds will cache as many as 30,000 seeds each fall. Not only do they make upwards of 1,000 seed-hiding trips a day, but these birds can remember the majority of their hiding locations. Any seeds that get moved or are forgotten during this fall spree though, play a crucial role in the forest ecosystem. These abandoned seeds make up the spring’s new growth, and help regenerate the forest and diversify the ages of tree stands.
So as you watch and listen to these common pests this winter season, give them a little credit. Their noisy calls and obnoxious behaviors are really signs that survival of the fittest continues, as these birds use their intelligence and cunning to carve out their niche in the world.
Rose Delles is the youth programs coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. You can find her this fall stashing program materials throughout the office in hopes they’ll last all year.