Mexican-Ecuadoran secrets of the tufted jay, Cyanocorax dickeyi

Don’t you wonder why birds are where they are? Have you been on one of those guided birding trips where you hop in and out of the van spending ten minutes here, or five minutes there, to see the most birds you can in a precious, expensive day? It can seem like birds are like plants and occur in exactly the same place from one visit to the next. Your guide knows just what those patterns are, just the way you know what birds come to your feeder. But why are the birds where they are?

Some birds are native, where we think they evolved. How do we know this? Well, lots of reasons, but one of the most compelling is that in the tree of life that covers that species, there are related species close by, perhaps on the other side of a mountain or other barrier, or in slightly different habitats. But what about a bird whose nearest relative is over a thousand kilometers away? How did it get there? This is the mystery of the tufted jay.

chara-pinta-tufted-jay-3If you are lucky enough to find a nest, or a nice acorn crop, the noisy, social tufted jays are probably hard to miss in their forested habitat, a tiny stretch of Pacific mountains in western Mexico, more specifically the Sierra Madre Occidental between about 1500 and 2100 m elevation where Sinaloa, Durango, and Nayarit join. This is one of those birds where it pays to know the scientific name, Cyanocorax dickeyi, because it has been called the tufted jay, the painted jay, or, in Spanish, chara pinta. But I digress.

If you look at where tufted jays fall in the tree of life and from that infer where they occur, you would choose Ecuador. So what are they doing in western Mexico, in a different habitat from their nearest relatives and so, so far away? Paul Haemig makes a compelling argument that this is a case where humans intervened, carrying the birds from coastal Ecuador all the way to the metal-rich mountains of western Mexico in pre-Columbian times before any European had pulled out a New World life list. After all, birds were important to the first people of our continents. So were feathers. Captured birds were common in cages and in commerce. Why not bring this fabulous jay from Ecuador to Mexico?

The next step in this story is to visit the evidence that pre-Columbian people did travel from coastal Ecuador to this part of western Mexico. These data are in the hands of the anthropologists. Clothing, ceramics, metallurgical techniques, tomb shapes, designs, language and even simulations of ocean currents all point to this linkage, so the birds had a natural, most likely, human mediated path to these remote and initially inhospitable mountains.

But was there enough time for Cyanocorax dickeyi to evolve the differences it has from its likely ancestor, Cyanocorax mystacalis? After all the Mexican bird lives at different altitudes, has different coloring and who knows what different behavioral, physiological and other differences. I think the answer has to be yes, though the details of the story are likely to be fascinating.

All in all, it makes me want to go back to these remote Mexican mountains, a place I have not been since I was a small child. There I could witness the colorful jay, a living reminder of human travels.

Selected references

Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. 1992. Ancient cultural contacts between Ecuador, West Mexico, and the American Southwest: Clothing Similarities. Latin American Antiquity 3:114-129.

Bonaccorso, Elisa et al. 2010. Molecular systematics and evolution of the Cyanocorax jays. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution 54:897 – 909.

Haemig, Paul D. 1979. Secret of the painted jay. Biotropica 11:81-87.

Kittelson, Meredith, and Cameron Ghalambor. 2014. Tufted Jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online:

Moore, Robert T. 1935. A new jay of the genus Cyanocorax from Sinaloa, Mexico. Auk 52:274-277.

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Scissor-tailed flycatchers at Mount Doom in Missouri

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScissor-tailed flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) are highly uncommon in Missouri, but there is a pair nesting right by Mount Doom and yesterday we saw them flying in the distance, against the rocky nuclear waste site. The bird guides do not put these lovely Texas Hill Country birds in Missouri, except for with a rare bird dot, but here they were. First one, then the other flew low, then up onto a telephone pole. The birders with this Audubon-sponsored outing told me that they had a nest earlier in a precarious stem, now destroyed. Others online said there was still a nest with eggs which we did not see. I guess this is the advantage of an active community of birders.

I was glad to see these Texas favorites, but prefer to think of them back in Texas, soaring over the natural granite and gneiss around Llano, or over the limestone outcrops around San Antonio. These great flycatchers remind me that every bird is an individual. Every migration path is particular, taken by many, but flown separately. The terrain is a mosaic, with cerulean warblers here, not there, though the habitat looks identical. Pine warblers were in these pines at Busch Interpretive Center last year, but not this year. The collective knowledge of hundreds of St. Louis birders tells us where and when, then shares it on MoBirds for all. Or you can wait for a St. Louis Audubon Society field trip and learn for yourself.

Are you wondering about Mount Doom? IMG_5357   So was I.  Is it the reason for this large and lovely natural area around Weldon Springs, so close to St. Louis?  After all, how bad could it be when there is a high school right in its shadow. Turns out, it is about as bad as it gets, horrible waste, horrible actions on all sides, towns destroyed, and then it was buried. Is this a good solution? Would it be the solution today? What should be done if you have a munitions factory, nuclear waste, and all kinds of problems like that? They got the contaminants out of a quarry, came up with a plan, then executed it. The result is what the birders call Mount Doom and the government calls The Weldon Spring Site. Is it good or bad? Well, life is much too complicated for those terms. I don’t know enough about the whole thing except to know it is finished. We should keep gathering careful data on the people around there and think hard about what waste we generate, for once we have it, there are are no easy answers. I’m reminded on a much smaller scale of the paint factory on the shores of Lake Waban, on the Wellesley College Campus. There the remediation was a complex mix of removal, burial, and isolation.IMG_5349

But what about those flycatchers?  Why do they have such long tails? Do they suffer from edge-of-range effect here?  I found one interesting study by Laura González-Guzmán and David Mehlman, published in Ecology Letters in 2001 (volume 4, pages 444-452). They talk about several interesting points. One is that there are sink and source habitats. A sink habitat is one where young disperse to but then fail to breed, so the place sucks in naive organisms without ever exporting any. Such places are likely to be more common on the edges of ranges where conditions might be marginal. Our Mount Doom location would be a sink if the birds that come there could never successfully breed. I hope that is not the case, but do not know.

Even if they could breed, an edge-of-range habitat might be unsuitable in more subtle ways. One way biologists have of getting at this is to look at how symmetrical the birds are. The argument goes that bilateral organisms like us will be symmetrical if we have developed under good conditions. Symmetry has been argued as a trait important in mate choice, even in humans. If you wonder about it, just take a piece of paper and cover the left then the right half of any person’s face. Generally you will like one half better than the other and some people have more difference between the halves than others.

What does symmetry mean for scissor-tailed flycatchers?  Well, Laura and David found in the literature that young scissor-tailed flycatchers do not return to their natal lands to breed, but once they start breeding somewhere else, around half of them stick with that locations. This means they could tie birds to breeding grounds and ask about their symmetry. They measured museum specimens, so these birds had seen their last breeding season. (People used to kill birds and put them in museums all the time, but that is the topic of another entry.) Only measurements of the tail feathers showed patterns of variation with location in the range, in ways not predicted at first. Their main finding was that males showed greater asymmetry towards the center, not the edge of their range. This implies that higher quality birds, the symmetrical ones, made up more of the edge populations. Of course, in the denser central populations there were plenty of symmetrical and asymmetrical birds.

The authors interpreted this to mean that the weaker, less symmetrical birds stick around in the center of their range, but in those areas are likely to have poorer territories. In a study like this there are a lot of conditional statements. But the bottom line is there is a pattern, so further work could see if the inferences drawn from this pattern are supported.  What it means for our pair or two of scissor-tailed flycatchers on Mount Doom is that they are likely to be symmetrical. I just hope they succeed in nesting sometime and are not a sink, for I love these birds.

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Birding the California coast at Coal Oil Point, Santa Barbara

Walk the same route over and over so you can get to know the common birds for that place IMG_4709    and notice the rarer ones. Here is a walk I took for three weeks while working at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.IMG_5176




Anna’s hummingbird


black phoebe


snowy plovers


willets at low tide.

Out the door onto the mowed grass of West Cottages, UCSB housing, where the California towhees scratched, hopped back, peered down, showing their russet rumps, then repeated. A dull western bluebird perched on the wall, its mate nearby in an oak. White-crowned sparrows stayed closer to the bushes as they foraged in the grass. One caught a cricket and swallowed it, head first, spiny cricket legs sticking out last.
Out on the road, I looked down to the lagoon where the great white egrets and black-crowned night herons lurked. Out in the high tide lagoon were Western grebes, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, and mallards. But I did not turn that way. I turned towards the beach.
I imagined students crafted the signs telling of vernal pools and coastal scrub here at Coal Oil Point biological station. I took the narrow path that hugged the wooden fence keeping us up on the cliff and out of the dunes. A rabbit dashed across the path, improbably small in the scrub. An Anna’s hummingbird male perched squeaking high on an agave stalk. A black phoebe dipped its tail, then flew off its perch and out over the dry meadow.

No researchers occupied the labs of Coal Oil Point early this Sunday morning, but a yellowthroat darted into the lusher bushes along the building. A song sparrow sang a buzzy variant of the song I know so well from Michigan. A surfer parked his bike and walked down the bluff into the waves, already wearing his wetsuit.
I went down the rough path carved into the bluff up to the rising high tide. Pacific and California gulls flew off the point. A group of willets pondered the surf. Three pelicans flew past, a constant reminder that we almost lost them to pesticides. A lone wimbrel walked across the dunes.


marbled godwits

There were no sanderlings in this high tide. I walked on down the beach towards the outlet of the lagoon. There I saw them, nestled like rocks in the clumpy dunes. Snowy plovers fluffed themselves out as they waited for the tide to recede. I took their photo and turned around, not continuing to the monarch wintering grounds, for the lagoon was filling. The slough was open.


brown pelicans

My run would have to be on the bluff-top trail, so I went back up, causing 3 California quail to dash across the path. I ran a modest mile, stopping for the view at the point and the high tide waves crashing across the rocks. I had finished listening to Lonesome Dove and had moved on to Streets of Laredo.


white-tailed kites

On my run’s return, I saw two white-tailed kites perched in a dead snag high over the coastal scrub.
There is no end because there is no beginning, just the tide peaking and withdrawing, the foam blowing and subsiding, the surfers paddling, then riding, and the never-finished shorebird hunt for food in the wet sand.

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2012 in review; much more to come to SlowBirding in 2013!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 16 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Bald eagle swoops in for the kill – and misses

American Bald Eagle fall mating ritual

Image via Wikipedia

Currents of shore birds lifted above the Brazoria National Wildlife marshes on a cold February day. Thousands of sandpipers, dowitchers, yellowlegs, stilts, and ducks fled the hunting bald eagle. A blue-winged teal flew across the marsh, now high, then low, with the eagle in pursuit. This one teal had become the target and was fleeing for its life. It was likely to succeed because it was fighting for its life, while the eagle was simply fighting for its dinner, as Richard Dawkins put it so clearly in The Blind Watchmaker. The other reason the teal was likely to live was that this was a second year eagle, mottled white on its breast. It was clearly still learning when to give up the chase and move on. I wouldn’t exactly say it was toying with this duck, or that one, as it coursed across the marsh, but the eagle didn’t seem to be too serious either.

I looked over at our students, standing on the low dike bordering the marsh. They were cold, for a couple of hoodies were about as much as they could imagine. They huddled in two groups, slightly separated, but tight within the groups, sheltering from the wind. All 11 pairs of binoculars were pointed skyward. Most of them had never seen a wild eagle, let alone one that might catch a duck. I hoped I was witnessing an important event in their lives, one that would be told tonight back in their Rice University colleges, Wiess, Sid, Baker, or Jones, and again in other years, perhaps whenever they visited a marsh, or sat around a campfire.

This is one of the joys of teaching, being there when the spark begins. Eagles hunting ducks cannot be scripted the way the quiz we were about to give can be. I suppose we need the quizzes, for we need to generate a little focus, but I’ll take the hunting eagle any day.

I’ve seen many eagles over the years. I’ve seen them sitting in the trees along the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs. I’ve seen them flying low over Pilant lake at Brazos Bend State Park. Two weeks ago we saw two bald eagles in trees overlooking the Mississippi river, near Alton, on the Illinois side. Last week, in February 2012, three years after the Brazoria eagle, I saw 4 eagles, all second year, from the Missouri River Runner Amtrak train bringing me home to St. Louis from Kansas City, where I had been to give a talk at Avila University. But enough about rivers and their motionless eagles. What is known about hunting eagles?

Bald eagles, scientifically known as Haliaeetus leucocephalus, in the Accipitridae, are meat eaters who are happy with carrion, but also catch their prey. Joseph Buchanan and James Watson (2010) watched bald eagles in Oregon and Washington. They found that eagles could catch their prey on the wing. They also found that eagles could predict exactly where a duck would surface, and swoop down to catch it just in that moment of interface between water and air. They saw western grebes and buffleheads meet their end in this way at Eld Inlet, off Puget sound, in Washington. They also reported a clumsy kind of cooperative free-for-all as mostly immature eagles hunted herring gulls. I can’t imagine gull would be a meat of choice, but they were abundant at the study site. The description is detailed. Here is a piece of it: “At 08:31 the 2 Bald Eagles abruptly discontinued their pursuit of the gull and began to attack another Herring Gull. Two other sub-adult Bald Eagles joined the attack almost immediately. The chase began at 30 to 50 m above water, the height at which most of the gulls were soaring. The eagles made at least 40 approaches of the gull until 08:34 when the gull dropped down to fly within about 10 m of the water, where the eagles made at least 40 more approaches.” The story goes on, ending with the eagles giving up, though other attacks were apparently successful.

Adult gulls flee hunting eagles successfully, but in some places the eagles find gulls that cannot leave so easily. Glaucous-winged gulls nest in groups in Barkley Sound, British Columbia. There, White, Heath, and Gisborne found indirect evidence that they preyed on chicks, and forced the gulls to put more time into vigilance, time taken away from foraging for the chicks. Indirect evidence means they did not see an eagle taking a chick or egg. What they did see was eagles hanging around the colony, something that peaked in late June, with about 4 eagles seen per visit to the 45 gull colony. The gulls were more likely to take flight when eagles were around and more of the gulls were vigilant, looking around, presumably for eagles and other predators. The investigators found that 89% of the gull nests were empty by 6 July 2005, though they could not rule out the impact of a storm. This study is highly suggestive that eagles are bad news for nesting gulls, but it cannot rule out other causes of the gull behavior. The eagles peaked when the chicks were young, so the increased vigilance behavior could be because of the eagles or it could be a correlate of something else. This happens commonly in science, and we must be careful to understand exactly what we know and what we do not know. This study indicates the researchers are onto something that warrants further study, not something completely understood.

Eagles eat a lot of other things, from fish to carrion. They migrate, making it likely their food varies by location. There are a lot of other interesting things they do, at the nest and away. But I’ll leave those for another time. For now, I’ll just remember the Texas eagle chasing a duck and the Missouri eagle high in a tree over the river.

Buchanan, JB & Watson, JW 2010. Group hunting by immature bald eagles directed at gulls. Northwestern Naturalist 91:222-225.
White, AF, Heath, JP, & Gisborne, B. 2006. Seasonal timing of bald eagle attendance and influence on activity budgets of glaucous-winged gulls in Barkley Sound, British Columbia. Waterbirds 29:497-500.

CC 2.0 license, Eric Frommer: Haliaeetus_leucocephalus_-Skagit_valley-8.jpg

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Student-written bird blogs tie experience to scientific literature

Rice University students wrote many of these bird entries, including the top posts on red-shouldered hawks and starlings. Some had to revise them considerably before I felt comfortable posting them. Others seemed to be natural writers. Here are the instructions that generated these great entries. I plan to do more of this with our wonderful Washington University in St. Louis undergrads, once I figure out the birding scene. I found the FAQ format of the assignment to be very effective.

Rice University EBIO 337 2011 Bird blog assignment

There are three of these due at 11:55 PM, 7 February, 23 March, and 6 April, to be turned in through Owlspace Assignments. Turn them in early since we can’t take late assignments. Save your work! Computers break, hard drives fail, flash drives get run through the washing machine. Use Dropbox, or an online back up, but do it wisely, or the ether can gobble your stuff up! Of course, if you are not very busy right now, you can simply turn in all three assignments way early, and just enjoy the rest of the course. All are now open on Owlspace. Also, at the same place turn in the PDFs of the papers you used for your report.

Each is worth 15 points.

The point of the assignment is for you to tie field observations of one species of bird to refereed scientific literature on that bird and write an engaging and scientifically accurate entry that people will enjoy reading. We will post all the good ones on a new blog,

What is refereed scientific literature? Refereed scientific literature is published in journals like Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Evolution, Ecology, Auk, Wilson Bulletin, Science, Nature, and Waterbirds and can be accessed through Web of Science, , or Google Scholar, . Note that you can only use Web of Science from on campus. Look at Wikipedia or Cornell’s Birds of North America AFTER, not before you have done your assignment. They are like blinders that keep you from seeing the cool stuff in the original literature. If you know more about your bird than Wikipedia has, become a contributor and update the Wikipedia site.

What should I search for to find cool stuff about my bird? You’ll get a lot more stuff if you search for the scientific name, and not the common name. I searched for Zonotrichia albicollis and got a more than when I searched for white-throated sparrow.

What should go in the observation section? Watch the bird or birds for at least 10 minutes. A couple of hours would be better, but we won’t necessarily have time for that on the field trips, so watch less time if that is your only opportunity to watch. We encourage you to hang back from the group and watch your bird. Just be sure you can catch up. Call me on my cell if you get lost (832-978-5961). Write down everything the bird is doing. Where does it go? What makes it move? Does it interact with other birds? What is it eating? Is it easily spooked? Is it singing or calling? What makes it start and stop? Where does it call from? What is the general environment around it? If you see your birds on more than one occasion what connects them? What do you think about it? Make it personal and engaging. If you have already read some of the scientific literature, it will help your observations.

What should go in the literature section? This is the main part of the blog. Here you have learned something cool about your bird, and you share it in an engaging and scientifically accurate way, written for the non-scientist general public. Be sure your paragraphs are in a nice order, and you have transitions between them. Sure fire topics are things like mating behavior, parental care, migratory behavior, conservation issues, territoriality, songs, social behavior, foraging behavior, interesting physical traits. This is not a boring catalogue, but a selective discussion of interesting things put in context. You can also talk some about the researchers and the field site. I always like to have some numbers, not just generalizations. Mention the year of the study, where it took place, and give some key numbers. Be sure to put the scientific name of the bird somewhere in there. Look at the example!

What should the title be? Blogs live or die by their titles, tags, and links. So the title should be fun. It must include the common name of the bird. Capitalize only the first word of the blog. Bird names are not capitalized.

What kinds of figures do I need? Figures make a story come alive. They should illustrate the key points of your piece. You should have a couple of photographs of the bird. Habitat photographs are also good. Capture at least 2 graphs from the primary literature and put them in your blog. Take no more than one graph from any one article, and this should be all right under fair use rules. The photographs must be from open sources if you don’t take them yourself. Check under Wikimedia.

Where should the figures go? The figures should go at the end, after the references. Each one should have a clear caption that says what it shows, and where it came from. The reason we don’t put them into the text is that some browsers don’t handle that very well, and make things harder to read.

What should I link to? Links make your blog part of the community. Link to the web pages of the researchers you are studying. Link to the field site where their work takes place. Link to the journals you used to do your research. Link to important things you find.

What should go in the references section? Use at least 5 refereed references. Because this is a blog, we aren’t putting references in the text, just at the end. They should follow the form at the end of the paragraph. They should be linked to the actual article, or the PubMed or Google Scholar version. Be sure to include the universal locator, the doi. Annotate the bibliography by putting a comment after it, as in this example. Use exactly this format for the references.

Formica, V. A. and Tuttle, E. M. 2009. Examining the social landscapes of alternative reproductive strategies. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22:2395-2408. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2009.01855.x

This paper explains the different places the two morphs nest, and discusses the significance of having two strategies.

How can I get more insight into my bird? Go to the web pages of some of the authors. They may well have some nice explanations, and might have photographs they would let you use. Just be sure to do this AFTER you have read the primary literature, and do not copy content or structure of any work found here.

Can I have a friend read over my rough draft? Absolutely, yes! This is crucial. You can trade with others in the class and read each other’s. We will not post inferior blogs on the website, but you can fix them up for posting. Try to get as many people as possible to read and comment on your entry before you turn it in.

How many times will I have to revise? If you want your entry posted on the Slowbirding site, you will have to revise it until I am happy with it. It could be once or 20 times. I will read and reread as often as necessary. Just try to pay careful attention to my comments each time.

What are the plagiarism rules for this assignment? You may not plagiarize. This means you may not use the words or paragraph structure of another in your entry. If I see your entry has exactly what is found at Wikipedia or Birds of North America Online, I will send it straight to the Honor Council. By the way, see how much more boring the entry for White-throated sparrow is on Birds of America online than what I wrote,. It’s here:

We want your entries to be fun, to be read by birders that only count, haven’t learned to watch.

Is there an example of this unusual assignment that I can follow? I have posted an example on white-throated sparrows at and will post others. Any bird I do is subsequently off limits.

When do I pick my birds? Now! If you tell me what bird(s) you will do I will put your name down, and I will not do them. You can reserve all three birds now, or wait until the field trips. If you reserve them, be sure they are common enough that we are guaranteed to see them. You have the list for the first trip and should email me now with your choice, as several of you already have. Only 2 people can do the same bird.

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2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,400 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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