Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Western Scrub-jay, also known as the California Jay, Aphelocoma californica, photographed at Bodega Bay, California. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 23 December 2007 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/750s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

This mystery bird species performs a remarkable behavior that has intrigued scientists and even has resulted in a paper in one of the world’s top research journals, Science. Can you tell me more about this behavior?

Western scrub-jays, Aphelocoma californica, cache food for future consumption, they steal others Jays’ caches, and they engage in deceptive tactics to minimize the chance their own caches will be stolen. The Science study I am referencing shows that scrub-jays remember which individual bird watched which caching event, and the cache-r then alters his or her re-caching behavior accordingly. Further, the researchers were unable to find any evidence that the cache-ing bird’s cache protection tactics are cued by the individual observer’s behavior. This suggests that the Jays have empathy for others. [PDF]

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 Tabor
    June 23, 2010

    I cannot but will be eager to see what your peeps have to say.

  2. #2 James
    June 23, 2010

    To cache a thief.

  3. #3 bardiac
    June 23, 2010

    I love these birds! And this is an incredible and wonderful photo.

    But I have no clue about the unique behavior. Now I’m all curious! I bet James is giving us a clue. (Okay, can it be unique that the guys grab acorns and such and bury and hide them?)

  4. #4 biobabbler
    June 23, 2010

    western scrub jay. GORgeous birds, amazing blue feathers, lovely light eyebrow, thick, black bill, white bib, gray on back, etc. It’s a bird I’ve taken for granted while in So. Cal. then a visitor to the park where I worked was describing it to learn what it was and started out “Gorgeous blue bird, large, etc.” And I identified it and was simultaneously reminded it IS gorgeous. =) And brainy, too.

  5. #5 psweet
    June 23, 2010

    I don’t think Grrl said anything about this behavior being unique — but if it’s what I’m thinking, it is definitely unusual among birds.

  6. #6 Jana
    June 23, 2010

    Western Scrub Jay. I think she’s referring to the corvid habit of rearing young cooperatively, in family groups? Typically the young from one year will hang around their parents an extra year, helping raise their year-younger-siblings rather than breeding themselves. It teaches them life skills and improves the chances of the young surviving. (At least that’s what I remember from my one animal behavior course!).

    One more example of why corvids are so cool. We see crows foraging and feeding babies in big groups all the time around here.

  7. #7 James
    June 23, 2010

    These birds also watch where others hide food and go steal it.
    When they hide food themselves, they look around to make sure
    that they are not being watched. They also like to take shiny
    objects, natural or man made. Many a camp spoon or fishing lure or peice of jewelry goes missing at camp sites.

    The Florida race is interesting because of the large geographic separation, indicating a prior wider distribution
    of this species/subspecies in the last 100K(?) years of American history. Lack of scrub in the great plains perhaps
    isolated the FL population.

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    June 24, 2010

    Damn, I must send Grrl the pdf of teh paper she alludes to. I was wondering why she was asking for it.

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