Saturday, November 29, 2014

Blue Jays and Hunger

Note: This show first aired September 27, 2014.
I have red oaks around my house, which means this time of year, I have blue jays. I watched them the other day from my desk, looking out my window at the rain. They hopped and flapped from branch to branch at the top of the trees I see from my third story vista, searching for acorns, their preferred food this time of year. Hence the correlation: oaks and jays. Spending time beneath these branches is a bit of a risk, acorns frequently rain down, dropped accidentally. Jays hold the acorns in their claws and pound away at them with their thick beaks, cracking them open to access the nutritious nutmeat inside. This time of year, it’s likely to be all that they are eating.

There’s a reason we humans think about eating all the time. In the natural world, in the world we evolved in as animals (the animals we still are despite our computers and phones and refrigerators), what else is there to think about except finding food? Food is the constant vocation for wild animals, the number one job of all consumers is just that, to eat. Without enough food, there is nothing, no energy to run the metabolism that drives the fulfillment of genetic destiny. Food first, sex later.

I imagined what that would be like, to wake up in the morning like a wild animal, each and every morning of every day of your life thinking about food. Everyday a new day, a fresh opportunity to eat, or starve. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning in a house with no kitchen. No cupboard, no fridge, no food stores of any kind. Your day starts with you going outside to find something to eat. Every day starts that way. Reality TV aside, this is a marginal existence, an existence that honed us through natural selection oh so many years ago. An existence we pay no attention to now, unless you are a neo-aboriginal, experimenting with “rewilding light”, or desperately poor.

It turns out that Blue Jays, though they live the life of wild creatures everywhere, have a strategy for food scarcity, a strategy to cushion the pangs of hunger. They cache food, acorns and other mast crops from the forest. They can move hundreds of acorns a day, thousands a week, hundreds of thousands during a season. They bury them in small groups in the soil of the forest floor, and have a retrieval rate, according to one study, of about 30 %. That leaves about 70% for other animals to eat, or to germinate, dispersed so widely and nicely from the parent tree. Other studies show that Blue Jays are real foodies, picking only the healthiest and most viable acorns for caching, which means in practice, oak trees have come to depend on this noisy bird for dispersing their seeds. The idea is out there that Blue Jays are at least in part responsible for the rapid reforestation that occurred after the last of the glaciers left New England twelve thousand years ago. That’s a mighty job for a small blue bird. Americans are estimated to waste about 40% of the food we buy, and our food waste doesn’t feed other animals or grow forests, most of it rots in land fills (compost piles not withstanding). It’s a statement of how far out of the system we’ve come.

If I can’t think of the Blue Jays as facing each day with an empty belly (though in practice, even with food stored away, there are not guarentees), there are certainly other animals that wake up each morning with a clean slate. The coyotes I have been hearing around my house every night for the past two weeks don’t cache food. They spend all their time searching. What if I lived more like a coyote instead of a blue jay? What if every day that dawned was a brand new challenge to fill my stomach, as unconnected from the day before as to the day ahead. Each day an individual exercise in survival, life a series of these days strung together, one after the other, going on until I fail.

The blue jays I see this fall I watched fledge in July. Fledging day dawns with a ruckus coming from those same tree tops outside my 3rd story window, the young hop and flutter from branch to branch all the while encouraged by the screeching calls of the adults. I imagine they are saying “come on come into this world, where your pursuits must be single minded, and your eyes clear”.


Good citations to studies if you are a paid subscriber to the Birds of North America site

Nice article with a few more details about cache retrieval rates (presumably from the above studies)