/The bird warning us

The bird warning us

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

It’s been an odd winter and as it fades into spring it seems to be getting odder.

One of this winter’s oddest things is the absence of birds. A lone blue jay or a raven has come by my place, but little else.

Some Ontario birds do not fly south for the winter. Often, I can look out a winter window and see a variety of sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches and finches. Or, if I’m really lucky, a large pileated woodpecker or a red Northern Cardinal. Not this winter.

Perhaps I’m seeing fewer birds because we are not putting out the usual amounts of seed. Rain on the snow has created icy patches where the bird feeders are hanging and walking out to them is treacherous.

One particular bird I like to watch for, and haven’t seen in a long time, is the Gray Jay, also known as the Canada Jay or more famously the Wisakedjak.

Wisakedjak is the Algonquian name for the robin-sized songbird many of us know as the whiskey jack. It’s that dark grey and white and very trusting little bird that might land on your open hand if sees something to steal or to eat.

It also is known as the Camp Robber because of its boldness in stealing food from a picnic table or frying pan.

A variety of studies have been done, and are still being done, on whisky jack populations. The studies generally show population declines of up to 50 per cent, particularly in Algonquin Park and surrounding areas.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the whiskey jack  a  “least-concern species” but there is mounting evidence that global warming is reducing its populations in its southern range, which in Ontario is the region along Highway 60.

Warmer winters are affecting whiskey jack winter food caches.

The birds use sticky saliva to roll bits of food into gooey packages they stuff into tree bark nooks and crannies. They hide thousands of these frozen food packages and depend on them for winter survival.

When winter temperatures climb above freezing, as they often have this year, the food caches thaw and rot, leaving them inedible, or at least greatly reduced in nutritional value. Less nutritional food limits the whiskey jack’s ability to reproduce.

Some studies already have shown no whiskey jacks remaining in some parts of their southern range. At least one study predicts the birds will become extinct in Algonquin Park.

Caching food for winter tells a lot about what is inside these birds’ little heads. They have to remember where they have hidden thousands of little food caches in hundreds of hectares of forest.

They are among the world’s smartest birds with a body-to-brain ration very close to that of a human.

Any critter that clever has a good chance of adapting and surviving. It may be disappearing along the Highway 60 region but hopefully will move its range further north.

In some Indigenous legends the whiskey jack was said to be created by the Great Spirit as a teacher for humans. Its chattering and whistling often is taken as a warning of nearby predators.

Indigenous guides in Yukon tell stories of Wisakedjak singing and flitting from tree to tree to lead a lost and starving hunter home. The birds have a “whisper song,” which is a series of soft, melodious notes interspersed with quiet clicks, lasting up to a minute.

They also will make little snapping sounds with their bills when chasing intruders away.

Diminishing whiskey jack populations are teaching us that we must start taking better care of our environment if we are to survive. They are telling us that we are taking too much from the Earth and causing the seasons to change.

Global warming is bringing more floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires and hurricanes. This more intense and severe weather is killing livestock, driving down crop yields and turning some growing areas into swamps or sandpits. Wild weather also interferes with the quick transport of food to where it is needed.

Wisakedjak’s warning to us is appreciated, but not really necessary. We can look out our windows and see the environmental changes every day.