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Getting Shots

November 4, 2010

Island scrub jays! My favorite squawky residents of the Channel Islands.

Photo: Stephen Francis

They’re like Western scrub jays, which are the medium-sized blue and gray guys making a racket in your back yard (if you’re in the west), only bigger and bluer. Island scrub jays only live on Santa Cruz Island, which means they have one of the most limited ranges of any bird in North America. SCI’s protected; the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy own it. So the jays aren’t at risk of losing their habitat to invasive species (well, not anymore) or suburbs.

But, being a species with such a limited range, their existence is tenuous anyway. There’s about 2,400 of them. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not really that far from zero. There are good years and bad years; there’s drought, fire, el nino, predation, starvation, climate change, disease. It wouldn’t be impossible for a few bad years in a row to drive their numbers way down, like to zero, which is extinction.

Right now a looming threat is West Nile virus. Jays and other corvids–magpies, crows, and ravens–are especially susceptible to West Nile. It’s already wiped out half the yellow-billed magpies in California (which is the only place they live). It seems not to have spread to SCI yet, but if it did it would be devastating. So the Island scrub jays are getting West Nile shots.

Biologists are catching them by luring them into wire cages with peanuts, banding them, taking some measurements, and vaccinating them (the shots are produced at the CDC). They’ve done about 100 so far.

Photo: Kathryn Langin

I hate to play favorites, but I have some kind of deranged affection for the Western scrub jays that live in my back yard, and it’s expanded to include all their smart loud corvid brethren. West Nile moves quickly. It first came to the US in 1999, and has spread to 47 states since then. Warmer temperatures will likely mean more mosquitoes, and more West Nile. I hope this project is successful.

Photo: Kathryn Langin

Read more:

  • The LA Times has an article about the vaccination program that goes into nice detail about the island, the people working there, and the birds themselves. There’s also a photo gallery.
  • Island scrub jay bird of the month post from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
  • This post from 10,000 Birds is from a couple years ago (as is the Smithsonian one, above). SCI is a major draw for birders, since you can’t see the Island scrub jay anywhere else.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 2:45 pm

    Great story! They are such lovable creatures. Keep up the good work.

  2. February 7, 2011 2:48 pm

    I love your blog! informative and fascinating- always interesting to learn more about my own backyard.

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