By Frances Clark
The members of the Corvid or Crow family are smart, often showy, and have a reputation. As a group they are omnivores, eating a range of food from carrion to berries to bugs. They are known for their intelligence, such as remembering locations of food stashed months previously and faces of humans who have treated them well or ill. Each species is distinctive in appearance and voice and their behaviors reflect their habitat and social communities. As permanent residents of Jackson Hole, Corvids can be a fascinating group to observe and nature map in the coming months as many of the summer visitors move on.
Click here for a map of local Corvid sightings
The most common sightings are Common Ravens and Black-billed Magpies. They are well known as scavengers of carrion, raiding nests for baby birds and eggs, and preying upon small mammals—in short not very appealing behavior from our human perspective. However they are also nature’s clean-up crew, as they are willing to eat most anything.
American Crows are unusual in Teton County, and perhaps overlooked due to their similarity to the larger Ravens—It can be hard to determine size against the scale of sky and mountains. Crows are smaller with less bulky beaks and a flat-ended tail when flying, vs the raven’s heavier beak and “wedge-tail” visible in flight. Crows tend to be seen more in flocks around town where they are well adapted to human spaces, while ravens are generally in pairs or family groups out in the larger landscape. The typical caw caw caw voice of crows is higher pitched that of the husky croaking sounds of ravens.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are renowned for their mutualistic relationship with white-bark pine. These gray, white, and black birds move around the West in family groups seeking areas with productive white-bark pines. At this time of the year, they will use their substantial beaks to peck and pry out pine seeds from closed cones, gulp dozens into a “sublingual pouch” and then stash them on snow-free mountainsides. Each bird can remember 1000s of locations! Notably, males have an incubation patch to warm the eggs hatched in the heart of winter, so the females can retrieve their own stores. Over subsequent months, parents will continue to count on seeds for their survival, but also leave enough propagules to start a new generation of white-bark pines. These smart, flashy birds play a critical role in sustaining high-elevation ecosystems.
Canada Jays and Steller’s Jays are two other Corvids found mostly in our evergreen forests. Canada Jays, called “Gray Jays” until 2018, are also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks. They are gray, plumpish birds with whitish heads touched with black. They have the smallest beaks of corvids in Jackson Hole. They fly about in bonded pairs often making a series of starling squawking sounds.
Canada Jays are boreal birds, adapted to cold evergreen forests with spruce, but here in northwest Wyoming, they are also found in mixed stands of evergreens and aspens. True to their name, they are well adapted to tough, cold conditions. Their feathers can puff up and cover both feet and bills and also allow for solar radiation to penetrate deeply for extra warmth.
Mated for life, pairs scatter-stash their food to get by over the long winter months. These Jays have glands that produce a very sticky saliva, and they use their bills to make blobs of their food and stick them under bark and lichen an on twigs and needles. Favorite foods are berries—including huckleberries, arthropods, and fungi. Like Nutcrackers, they remember 1000s of locations. They produce young in February and March when it can be -20F, using their frozen food packets to nurture both parent and offspring. They will not have a second brood even if the first fails, despite the coming of easier spring conditions.
Another unusual behavior of Canada Jays, is by late spring, the largest of the brood pushes its siblings from the parental territory and gains the benefit of pilfering the stashes of its parents and learning sites for next winter’s stores. Its siblings have to look for adoptive parents who may have lost their brood and have food reserves to share.
Canada Jays can be beguiling. When scouting for food, they glide and hop from limb to limb, tilting their heads to check out what you may have in hand. I saw several groups a week ago along the south shore of Leigh Lake, a favorite place for picnickers. Their arrival was heralded by startling cranky calls and whistles.
Steller’s Jays are more elegant in appearance, but perhaps less interesting in behavior than Canada Jays. They are found in similar habitats and eat similar food. Steller’s Jays in addition will look for white-bark pine nuts and stash single seeds, but do so much less efficiently than Clark’s Nutcrackers. They also watch and remember where other animals store their food and pilfer as needed.
Steller’s Jays have a complex social system called “site-related dominance”. In essence, the dominant pair defends an area around its nest with the male dominant over the other males, and the female ruling over nearby females. Other pairs are kept 5-25’ away from this central nest, whereas couples farther out are more gregarious with each other. Scientists have determined all sorts of posturing and sounds associated with this complex community.
Hawks—Red-tail, Goshawk, Cooper’s–as well as ravens are all threats to Steller’s Jays. The jays respond to their presence by “mobbing” the intruder—squawking, diving, and otherwise driving it off. This is the advantage of living in a neighborhood of jays.
While our Jays don’t migrate, in winter higher-elevation breeders can move down-slope. This is when we may see Steller’s Jays at our feeders instead of up on Teton Pass. Occasionally there may be an irruption of flocks of young birds moving about. These are all interesting movements to Nature Map.
Finally, rarely, we see the Eastern Blue Jay, a close relative of the Steller’s Jay. They both have the arched crest, iridescent blue feathers, and decorative highlights. The more boldly marked Blue Jays tend to prefer acorns typical of more eastern forests, while Steller’s seek pine seeds of our montane forests of the Rocky Mountains. Last year, Nature Mappers recorded several Blue Jays in and around Jackson.
As we all remain hunkered down during this year of covid-19, let’s get out and enjoy the Corvids. Learning their differences in identity, habitat, location, and particularly their behaviors enhances our appreciation of being in Jackson Hole. And you help our local understanding of these birds by Nature Mapping what you see!
For more information:
All About Birds https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ a free site from Cornell Labs.
“Birds of the World” formerly Birds of North America – website sponsored by Cornell Labs: https://birdsoftheworld.org/ a subscriptions site with lots more detail
Regarding the name change of Gray to Canada Jay: https://www.audubon.org/news/the-gray-jay-will-officially-be-called-canada-jay-again
Differences in calls and meaning of Ravens vs. Crows: A YouTube by Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ5iippq3rA
By Renee Seidler
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign… And these ones are meant to preserve the scenery, as opposed to the signs in Les Emmerson’s song (1970).
I know many of you have been long awaiting the fixed radar speed limit sign installations in Wilson. Where are those signs?!
We thank you for your keen interest in this joint project with Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, Teton County and WYDOT. All parties are excited to get these installed to help make Highway 22 in Wilson safer for our wildlife and safer for motorists. The company we contracted with to purchase the signs has been hard-hit by COVID-19 and their ability to produce the signs had been limited. However, the County recently received the signs and we expect them to be installed before the end of summer!
An example of a flashing radar signs. Signs that flash have shown to be more effective at garnering the attention of drivers.
On a similar thread, we will also be upgrading the fixed radar signs on Highway 390. You may have noticed that we had to decommission the speed limit part of those signs. The digital speed limit message had lost its ability to synchronize with the WYDOT signs that flash lights during reduced nighttime speed limits. This led to driver confusion about the speed they should be driving. Once we install the Wilson signs, we will continue to partner with the County and WYDOT to address the signs on Highway 390 as well.
The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation has a long history of using multiple techniques to address wildlife-vehicle conflict on our roads (note the term: wildlife-vehicle conflict which is more encompassing than saying wildlife-vehicle collision and includes issues with landscape fragmentation and permeability, road noise impact, invasive species encroachment and much more), one of these practices is the deployment of road signs with the intent to slow drivers down and make them more aware of and attentive to their surroundings and the possibility of wildlife on the road. Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation has built a reputation in Teton County for being the “wildlife sign organization” (but if you’re not in the loop, ask me about our good work in roadkill data collection, our contribution to the Wildlife Crossings Master Plan, our involvement in passing the SPET to provide $10 million in funding for wildlife crossings and our participation in the Wildlife Stakeholder Group for crossings in Teton County) and rightfully so. You will note that we have been very focused on funding and purchasing noticeable signs. This is not by accident of course.
One of the most important parts of a wildlife message sign is that they need to capture motorists’ attention. The classic yellow diamond-shaped wildlife sign, often with a depiction of the animal of concern like a deer, tends to have very little effect on a driver’s speed or attentiveness to the fact that wildlife are more likely to be on the road. How often do you notice the yellow diamond signs?
Signs have the greatest impact on driver behavior if they have a dynamic, novel message, are located unpredictably and have flashing lights (Hardy et al. 2006). To have a higher impact, they need to be placed selectively where the wildlife problem is. So, we write messages on our message boards that will catch a driver’s attention and will be specific to a seasonal issue (like, “young ospreys on highway, drive carefully”), then move the sign to it’s next location where its sudden appearance will catch drivers’ attention once again in a new location. Drivers’ responses to wildlife warning signs are also limited to ~500 meters before and after the sign (Al-Ghamdi and Algadhi 2004). After about a half kilometer past a sign, drivers begin to lose attention to the message. Signs that demonstrate evidence of an issue also tend to be more effective, so sometimes you will see our signs mentioning the number of animals killed to date that year at that location (Blacker and Jones 2013).
Wildlife warning signs and reduced speed limits can only have noticeable effectiveness when the speed limit of a road is already relatively low (Huijser et al. 2018, Riginos et al. 2019). This is because at higher speeds like ~55 mph or more, vehicle stopping distances are much greater and typically the distance at which a driver notices the animal is not far enough away for the vehicle to stop before colliding with the animal (Huijser et al. 2008). You will see our signs are often posted in wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots that have lower speed limits like around the junction of Highways 22 and 390 or just north of town on Highway 191. Occasionally, you will see our signs on highways at higher speed locations as well, when we have heightened concern for wildlife-vehicle collisions or we are hoping to create greater awareness around a seasonal issue, like on Teton Pass or east of Hoback on Highway 191.
Unfortunately, what motorists think they would do and what they actually do may not be congruent and, we road ecologists have a mantra: it’s so much easier to change wildlife behavior than it is to change human behavior. This has been borne out time and again in many sociological and ecological studies and begs that, when finances are not a concern, wildlife crossings are much more effective than wildlife signs at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and at getting animals successfully across the road, i.e., addressing landscape permeability concerns (Clevenger and Huijser 2011). But as stop-gap measures or where wildlife crossings are not feasible physically or financially, signs are often the next best thing. The best thing we can do as drivers is to pay attention to our surroundings (for instance, if you are driving next to a river or over a bridge, recognize that these are riparian zones where animals are more likely to be present and crossing the road), look ahead, scan the sides of the road, drive the speed limit or the speed indicated by conditions (slower when visibility is limited!) and remind your friends that it is au courant to be a good driver!
By Renee Seidler
This month, the Teton County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the Agreement to Render Services (ARS) that allows Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) to conduct the planning, engineering, design, permitting and construction of two wildlife crossing structures near the intersection of WY-22 and WY-390. These structures will be funded by Teton County using Special Purpose Excise Tax (SPET) money, which was supported by 79% of voters in November 2019. These two crossing structures are part of a larger project that will protect wildlife and motorists alike from collisions at this busy intersection. Because of this ARS, the County and WYDOT can continue to move forward together on their collaborative project to protect wildlife in and around this busy intersection.
Map showing Wyoming Game and Fish (WGFD) GPS-collared moose movements in the Snake River Bridge Area. Yellow stars indicated future wildlife underpass locations.
As the Environmental Assessment for the Tribal Trails Connector moves forward, Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is working closely with our agency partners to provide expertise and data to help inform the decision-making process. You can listen to the Board of County Commissioners most recent workshop on Tribal Trails here. The discussion starts at the 46:45-minute mark. Most of the conversation speaks to design ideas for the Coyote Canyon/Indian Springs intersections, but commissioners also touched on topics of wildlife crossings to mitigate wildlife-vehicle collision and wildlife permeability issues on WY-22. To stay abreast of this topic, link to the project website.
I am lucky to be a part of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation team that has played such a vital role in providing and interpreting roadkill data for the county, state, and other partners. Amongst our many other accomplishments, we have been an active member of the Wildlife Stakeholder Group that informs wildlife crossings projects for the county and state; we have helped inspire the community to support building wildlife crossing structures through approval of the Special Purpose Excise Tax; and we have provided input on location and design of wildlife crossing structures. I am continuing this legacy of working closely with our partners, both NGOs and agencies, and I have been welcomed into the conversations as an expert in road ecology. I look forward to growing these relationships and adding to the healthy discussions concerning the conservation of wildlife in Jackson Hole.
My best to you,
Executive Director JHWF
By Arne Johanson
Why are our local, native plants important? Well for me, it is important that Jackson looks and feels like Jackson. If I wanted to have a suburban yard I’d be living in any suburb USA. But my opinion doesn’t really answer the question. Local native plants are important because of how they fit in with everything else here.
The local plants are adapted to grow in the local soils with only rainfall to keep them happy. Locally native plants support caterpillars. Just like Monarch Butterflies rely on milkweed, each butterfly species relies on a certain set of plants. These are the only plants on which their offspring can feed and the only plants where they will lay their eggs. The caterpillars then feed birds. Something like ninety percent of all terrestrial birds feed their young caterpillars and are reliant on this source of protein to raise their chicks.
A wild bouquet of native flowers in the Yellowstone backcountry (Photo Colby Mitchell) highlights the beauty of native flora. It’s important to remember that the wildlife we love depends on native plants to survive.
Native plants also feed larger critters from chipmunk to bear, be that shoots and tubers early in the year, leaves and flowers during the summer or fruit in the fall our native plants are what the wildlife depends on.
So not only are native plant attractive to look at (personal opinion), but they are easy to grow and help provide for butterflies, birds and all the other creatures that help make this place special. Now that just might be a better answer than simply, I like Jackson and want to keep its uniqueness. Either way, our native plants are an important aspect of the valley that we call home.
EDITORS NOTE: If you’re interested in native plants and making your yard more wildlife-friendly, be sure to check out the great work of the Jackson Hole Clean Water Coalition and their Trout Friendly Lawns program!
By Debra Patla
The tiny Boreal Chorus Frog owns the natural soundscape of Jackson Hole wetland areas during mild weather in May and early June. Each male chorus frog sends out a trill, lasting about one second and repeated 30 or more times per minute. Each responds to the calling of its near neighbors, filling the acoustic space. Warm, moist evenings are peak performance times, with hardly a break in the continuous concert that is audible a half-mile away or more. Hard to believe these frogs are barely one inch long!
An adult Columbia Spotted-Frog, one of three species of native amphibians in Jackson Hole.
Nature Mappers, be aware that you can discern one, two, or three chorus frogs calling, but more than that confuses the ear. For a continuous chorus, all you can do is make a guess about the number and make a note about it.
A male chorus frog clams up when he succeeds in finding a female attracted to the pool by the compelling concert. Climbing on the back of the typically larger female, he wraps his front legs around her, just behind her front legs. There he clings until she excretes a clutch of eggs, which he fertilizes externally. When that’s over, he may yet have time to rejoin the chorus and find another mate.
The Boreal Chorus Frog is given away by its vocalizations in the spring and early summer. It’s harder to actually catch a glimpse of one.
As summer approaches, the chorus becomes faint…solo frogs, not chorus frogs! And then, finally, silence. In that silence, much is going on. The adults migrate to summer hunting grounds in moist upland areas. The egg clusters they left behind, attached to underwater stems, hatch into tiny tadpoles that feast and rapidly grow in their forest of aquatic vegetation. Completing metamorphosis in July or early August, the little frogs emerge from the water and move upland like their parents. If all goes well, they can survive 5-7 years, returning each spring to wetlands to breed.
Two other native species in Jackson Hole have a somewhat similar life history, the Columbia Spotted Frog and the Western Toad. But their spring silence is a striking difference. One needs to be at exactly the right place and time to hear the males arguing or calling softly to females.
With luck, you will see or hear a frog or toad, or many of them, this summer. An identification guide is available at: http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org/application/files/4015/9113/4646/AmphibianGuide_Small.pdf.
Please be sure to Nature-Map your sightings!