[Tweeters] scrub jays - to feed or not to feed - again

Stewart Wechsler ecostewart at quidnunc.net
Wed Oct 22 20:46:37 PDT 2008


Some of you have heard my thoughts on the costs and benefits of feeding
birds and other wildlife, but it seemed like a good time to bring up the
subject again. Read on if you are interested:

The issue of whether or not Scrub Jays have expanded their range north has
been in large part due to humans feeding them again brings up the issue of
the cost benefit analysis of whether or not to feed birds and other
critters. I have had limited observations of Scrub Jays and I am
substantially going on what others report about them, but it appears that
they are fairly tough birds. They eat other birds' eggs and chicks, eat
other critters and compete and with other birds and other critters.
Anything we do that favors these birds is likely to come at the expense of
other species that they eat and compete with, as well as other species
secondarilly and tertially harmed by the changes in the ecosystem. Sure,
there will also be native species that benefit from this new species
entering a new area, such as those that are harmed by the species that jays
outcompete and eat. It may be that the jays help oaks more by caching
acorns and that grow if not dug up again than they harm the species by
eating the acorns. However you slice it, if we facilitate the promotion of
certain species we promote a change in the balance of nature from before we
intervened, which normally harms more of the species adapted to the earlier
balance than it helps..

All that said, I still enjoy seeing Scrub Jays in areas where they are
relatively new immigrants, even if I don't think it was a good idea to have
lured them into the new area, much like I enjoy seeing our immigrant Barred
Owls, even though they are problematic for other owls and other species.

It is not just feeding jays that is potentially a problem for the balance of
nature, but every species that we intentionally and inadvertantly feed from
the chickadees and juncos to the Eastern Gray Squirrels, Starlings or crows
that we may or may not want to feed, but do, to the rats that feed at night,
almost surely against our wishes. Though feeding birds helps many of the
species that are adapted to feeding at our feeders on the seeds and suet
that we give them, bird feeding is likely to do more harm than good to a
majority of other species of organisms that don't normally come to those
feeders and were adapted to a world without bird feeders. I refer to
feeding wildlife as "playing favorites with nature".

One more advantage of not feeding is that there is more "sport" in birding
if you have to find the birds by learning their preferred habitats and
finding those habitats and the birds in them, rather than luring birds to
unnatural feeding stations.

On the plus side of feeding wildlife is the pleasure we get from doing it,
which often causes much less harm than other things we do for pleasure.
For some people feeding birds is theraputic. Another plus is when kids and
adults become interested in nature because of their exposure to animals that
come to bird feeders, especially when these people end up becoming stewards
of habitats of those species that have lost out from changes in their world
brought on by mankind and the businesses that we created.

On the whole I don't think feeding birds, rats and squirrels is necessarilly
a problem, but I do think it is worth weighing out possible costs against
the possible benefits.

Stewart Wechsler
Ecological Consulting
West Seattle
206 932-7225
ecostewart at quidnunc.net

-Advice on the most site-appropriate native plants
and how to enhance habitat for the maximum diversity
of plants and animals
-Educational programs, nature walks and field trips
-Botanical Surveys

-----Original Message-----
From: Dennis Paulson Sent: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 12:47 PM
Subject: [Tweeters] more on scrub-jays

Well, I'm glad I didn't get "flamed" for my comments on scrub-jays as
terrorists. I think they're neat birds, too, and I was tickled to see one
flying across I-5 at the Tacoma Dome the other day. I'm usually all for
letting nature take its course. and we'll have the opportunity to do so as
this species colonizes more and more of tweeterland. Forty years ago, the
farthest north that scrub-jays were known to occur as residents in the state
was at Woodland, and it has been interesting seeing their spread northward
and eastward, first as isolated individuals, then as populations.

I don't think oaks are at all a prerequisite for the presence of Western
Scrub-Jays. The jays are opportunistic omnivores and will be successful
wherever there are people with bird feeders, as in many cities in California
where you scarcely see an oak. They may thrive even in areas without bird
feeders, although then perhaps the oaks are more important, as can be seen
where they are commonly associated with oaks in parts of southwest
Washington. They have moved up the Columbia River to the oaks of Klickitat
County, and I suspect they will fill that environment and slowly move
farther into eastern WA, moving from one cluster of bird feeders to another.
They are not as mobile as crows, so they probably won't colonize the
Columbia Basin as rapidly, if at all.

Long before global warming came under discussion, many bird species had
been extending their resident or wintering distribution farther north
because of all the changes we have made in the landscape, especially
providing food at bird feeders. Perhaps global warming is accelerating this
process, but it would be most interesting to see how much ranges have
extended northward in birds that are not at all dependent on human
provisions or habitats (e.g., reservoirs where there were only rivers,
orchards where there was only sagebrush) during the winter.

When I go on winter field trips in the interior, where it is truly wintry,
it dawns on me how few birds I find that are totally independent of human
endeavors. Would that Rough-legged Hawk have been there if the sagebrush
hadn't been replaced by farmland? Is that flock of redpolls feeding on the
seeds of a native herb or a weedy one? Are the Steller's Jays more likely to
be out in pristine conifer forest or hanging around bird feeders in the
small towns? Etc.
Dennis Paulson
1724 NE 98 St.
Seattle, WA 98115
dennispaulson at comcast.net

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