Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Birds and Storms

A series of storms has swept across the Sierra, some warm, some cold, and here at 4000', there has been the most annoying alternation between rain and snow.

Currently, I have six to eighteen inches of very wet snow on the ground. For a day the temperature has been thirty-five degrees, an inch of rain has dropped, and the snowpack is a sopping, soggy mass.

It is interesting to observe the birds coping with this. I was building a five-foot-high snow tetrahedron up in the Meadow the other day, and heard that strange warbling chorus of the flocking Sandhill Crane. Clouds swirled over most all the sky, with tiny patches of deep blue here and there. Suddenly the noisy cranes came into view, between tall pines, as I saw them, but a few hundred feet above, actually; they formed ragged V's and I estimated the flock at two hundred birds.

The strange thing was, they were heading northeast, as though crossing the Sierra into Nevada; which is likely enough, I am no expert on cranes, but I have seen these tall birds hunt, in their hopping fashion, in the marshes around Fly Geyser Hot Springs, up in the Black Rock Desert.

To fly northeast on this day! With violent snow showers assaulting the crest! What brave and noble birds! Where is the Plutarch, to record their extraordinary lives!

Then, this morning, under a sullen blanket of fog spewing rain and sleet and rain and sleet, a sudden heavy shower drove some perky-crested Stellar Jays into the shelter of a Canyon Live Oak, a gnarled mass of twisted branches and dense evergreen foliage, clinging to a cliff; several jays made the same abrupt move, into the live oak, and while the sleet pounded down and bounced off the soggy snow, the jays moved stealthily lower into the volume of the foliage. More and more and more leaves acted as tiny shingles above them, and they could pick and choose the dry zones.

In June, when the young of the Stellar Jay emerge from the nest in adult plumage, they exhibit a behavior I have seen in other bird species, and which is likely some deeply-rooted and primeval mechanism. The juveniles will wait, on some pine branch, say, for their parents to bring them food, tasty morsels of many kinds, I think; and as the parents wing into view, the juveniles slightly spead their wings, and beat them rapidly, and squawk excitedly, saying "Here I am--feed me! feed me! feed me!"

I took some corn chip crumbs out to the cement steps, and scattered them over steps and snow alike, and waited inside. Soon a crowd of jays discovered the treasure. I was intrigued to see one jay holding its wings a little akimbo and beating them rapidly. It was the juvenile "feed me" behavior, yet this bird was an adult, a near-yearling at the least.

There did not seem to be much aggression or competition between the half-dozen jays on the steps. But crumbs were plenty.

I saw that the jays preferred the steps to the snow; I suspect they fear exposing their deep blue bodies against white snow to the sharp eyes of some hawk. The darker background of wet cement would guard them from the hawk's keen eyes.

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