September 21, 2007
Gray Jay
Most of us understand now that the polar bear is the bellweather species for global warming.  The charismatic megafauna at the top of the food chain always grab our attention.  But if you're a birder, you may be having trouble making a tangible, relevant connection between your avian avocation and our imminent global crisis.  I have a couple tangibles for you--Kittlitz's murrelet and gray jay.

Murrelets are seabirds, members of the alcid family known as the "little penguins" because of their black and white plumage.  Alcids live in the ocean and come to land only to nest.  Six species of murrelets breed along North America's Pacific coast.  Kittlitz's, named for the German naturalist who first collected it, lays its single egg on bare rock amidst the ice and snow fields of Alaskan mountain peaks and feeds primarily along the edges of Alaska's receding tidewater glaciers.  This dependency on glaciers is unique among seabirds, and Kittlitz's is often referred to as the "glacier murrelet."

Since 1990 Kittlitz's population has declined by more than 80% just as the glacier's and ice fields in Alaska have begun to dramatically recede.  Government researchers are saying the "glacier murrelet" may well be the first avian species driven to extinction by global warming.  Like the polar bear, but for reasons not yet fully understood, Kittlitz's murrelet is an ice dependent species.  Kittlitz's murrelet is the avian polar bear.

Closer to home another species, the gray jay, has also undergone precipitous population declines linked to warming temperatures.  In this case the reason is known, quantifiable, and fascinating.  Gray jays inhabit the boreal forests across Canada and high elevations down through the Rocky Mountain chain.  Along the southern limits of this range gray jay numbers are down 60%.

The gray jay, aka "camp robber," is opportunistically omnivorous.  Like other members of the jay tribe it will eat almost anything, including berries, insects, the young of other birds, and carrion.  Food items are bound together with sticky saliva into oblong pellets and stored throughout summer and fall in nooks and crannies of tree bark.  Gray jays nest early and fledge their young in April.  Cold winters keep their food caches from spoiling until the young need food, but shorter, warmer winters are causing this perishable food source to rot, and the young are starving.

In the increasingly complex and interwoven tapestry of this global village we call home, it becomes harder and harder to connect the dots between our busy lives and the planet's health.  Just as you cannot follow your individual tax dollar to some specific government project, you can't turn the key in your SUV and watch a murrelet or a gray jay's life wink out.  But we all need to make a start.  Somewhere.  I date myself, but there was a popular 1960's bumper sticker with a relevancy that never went away.  "Think globally, act locally."  Think about it.  Time has come today.

Gray jays can be found in the White Mountains of Arizona.  Their most reliable location there is the Sunrise campground.  If you go up for fall foliage or to ski this winter, look for them.  I hope they are still there to clean up your campsite and delight you with their antics.  Think about it.  Time has come today.