SciSun: Cache and Carry   Leave a comment

Normally we wouldn’t think birds would make very good gardeners. They’re more likely to eat seeds, grains and fruits than they are to plant them. Plus they can’t drive tractors. But throughout the Western US, a very colorful and smart bird, the Western scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica), is planning for a better tomorrow by planting seeds today. Although he’s not really planting them, but hiding them from others…..or IS he….

This Jay (a member of the Corvidae bird family that also includes Blue Jays, Grey Jays, Crows and Ravens), lives in scrub and open woodland environments, often around pine, juniper, and oak trees. They are regular visitors to anyplace where there’s food and water, including backyards, and while they’ll protect their nests from dangers such as hawks, ravens, and cats they usually aren’t aggressive with smaller birds and will often eat side by side, particularly at birdfeeders or other sources where there’s enough food for all. But sharing a buffet only goes so far, and Jay flies off with as many nuts and seeds as he eats, finding places in his territory to hide, and store, and bury, and stash, and keep for later eating – or cache (pronounced ‘cash‘) – as much food as he can. Jays are so smart, they can remember hundreds of individual hiding places and scientists have recorded Jays even remembering who, if anyone, saw them hiding a seed, so they can later come back and dig it up, fooling the watching-and-waiting food thief.

But in their enthusiasm for hiding nuts and seeds, Jays can hide so many they forget where they all are – or they keep them buried so long, by the time they return for their meal the seed has started to take root and can’t be eaten. And this is where Jay becomes Farmer Jay. By leaving seeds and nuts in the ground until they start to sprout, Jay actually helps the forest to grow and spread; particularly after fires, when there’s very little plant life left, Jays busily grab all the oak acorns, pine nuts, and other seeds they can find, and bury them in the ground for later eating. Could Jay know that from small acorns will grow a forest of acorn-filled trees….?

Western Scrub Jay corn WIKI

“1 to eat now, 573 save for later”

Squirrels also cache nuts and other seeds to eat later, but these clever mammals generally use their sharp front teeth to nip out the portion of the seeds that allow the plants to germinate – grow from seeds into plants – so the seeds will be waiting, buried where the squirrel left them, until he digs them up. Also, the small germ of the seed packs the most energy and might be the best tasting, so it makes a great snack during busy nut-gathering activities (and is a lot less sticky than a fruit roll-up). Jays just bury the whole seed, not taking time to trim out the germ, so if Jay doesn’t come back and eat his hidden lunch within a few weeks a tree has already started to grow. You could say Jay is planning ahead and sacrificing an immediate snack of one nut, for a future forest of trees with almost unlimited nuts. Or maybe he just buries the entire seed because birds don’t have any teeth.


Michonne Says: I never hide any seeds. Sometimes I take seeds and grass into my burrow to eat later, but I always, eat them later. I don’t think any more grass will grow if I bury the grass I have now.

Posted December 2, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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