Sunday, February 27, 2011

Murder in Coches Prietos

It’s fun to go back and see what I wrote while doing different field work over the past several years. The following is an email I sent to friends on May 2, 2007. My apologies to those of you who have already read this.  For a quick background -- I helped a graduate student collect data for her PhD--her project involved nest searching and monitoring for orange-crowned warbler nests on Santa Cruz Island.  It was an amazing place to live for a couple of months--its part of Channel Islands National Park. Maybe I'll write more about that later.  For now, you should know that we named the bird territories after Simpson’s characters—but not any of the main ones. Also, this post contains graphic material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

The day began like any other day really…hiking in the dark, watching the moon set over the mountains, fog rolling into the canyons. I watched my B Canyon birds, Itchy and Scratchy—who were singing, as usual. And then I made my way down to Krusty's territory. Now, I found Krusty's nest about 8 days ago but alas, like the majority of the other nests we've found, it was predated.

So today my task was to watch for Krusty's sneaky female in case she's re-nesting. Instead, I stumbled upon Krusty feeding a fledgling. What?! So, I tracked down the fledgie and saw that it was banded which means it can only be one of Ralph's kids -- who are our only fledglings so far. So I continued to watch Krusty and Ralph's female feeding the brat and our only conclusion was that at some time, the two of them had gotten it on and Krusty felt some obligation to the kids. Helen went down the trail as I started packing things up and I heard her yelling—she found poor Ralph, father of 4, dead in the road. Head cleanly ripped off, color bands fully intact. (Photo below)

So Uncle Krusty, became a hero instead of the bachelor next door who was cheating with Ralph's wife. (Although my guess is that they still hooked up at some point)

But then again, what if Uncle Krusty simply hired the hit man?
Will we ever know who stole Ralph's head…was it an Island Scrub Jay (they get blamed for everything) or a passing accipiter?
Will Ralph's kids survive without their father? Will Krusty continue to help take care of them?

More to come in the next episode of "All my Orange-crowned Warblers"...

This example of what researchers can learn from banded birds is pretty cool. Ok well one probably doesn't learn much from watching bird soap operas -- but you know what I mean. One question researchers have is whether or not the “bachelor” males are indeed failures or actually geniuses—by sneaking copulations with your neighbor’s mate you can pass on your genes to the next generation without any of the parenting responsibilities. What an interesting strategy.  Although banded birds help, many researchers are looking into this with new genetic technology -- so that they can prove it!

In this case we also had proof of adult mortality—which is fairly uncommon. But nest predation is the primary factor limiting reproductive success of bird populations. We used nest cameras to determine the cause of nest failure and actually caught a snake in action when going to move one of the cameras. Check out the nestling legs sticking out of the snakes mouth in the photo.

Life is hard when you are a small yellow bird on an island full of things that want to eat you.

I can't wait to see what the graduate students come up with from this research on the Channel Islands.

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