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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Who killed scrub jay?

The feathers told a story. Last night scrub jay met her demise. On the trail to the camera trap, I found a circle of feathers—blue flight feathers, and a few downy breast feathers. Unmarked, expertly plucked. There was a splash of white—the victim had been killed on the spot. No blood or body parts. Everything had been eaten there, or perhaps carried away.

One thing is certain. The killer was a professional plucker. Cats fastidiously pluck their prey, and I suspect that ringtails do too. Yes, it could have been an owl. Owls may swallow mice whole, but they pluck their feathered prey, though less painstakingly than cats. In their regurgitated pellets bird plumes are twisted among the bones. But I suspect an owl would have carried a dead jay to a perch, and the feathers would have scattered.

This looked to be the handiwork of a bobcat.

As I was hunkered over the evidence, I remembered hearing the jays rallying yesterday. They made a ruckus as I climbed the trail home in the long shadows of late afternoon. It was that irritating cawing of little crows. "Screeep screeep" ad infinitum. Scrub jays indeed have an annoying alarm call. I stopped to catch my breath and locate the noisemakers. I couldn't see them, but they were somewhere in the chaparral on the sunny south slope, perhaps 40 yards away. Was I the cause of their discomfort? Was my presence in the shadows so alarming? Come on, birds, give me a break.

But now, looking at the feathers in disarray, I connected the parts of the puzzle. A resting bobcat saw a man walking through the woods. The man was too close, the cat moved away. A scrub jay saw the cat, and sounded its alarm. Its family mobbed the cat, until it disappeared. The cat returned in the dark, and snatched a jay. It fed on it nearby. The man returned the next morning, and found the jay’s feathers in disarray.

The feathers told a story, and I think, perhaps, I played a bit part in the tale.

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