Keeper of the Keys

by Rex Burress

I had not previously thought of selecting a "keeper of the keys" animal for my Feather River environment, but John Janovy, Jr., a professor from University of Nebraska, wrote in his book, The Vermilion Sea, about choosing an animal to represent a habitat and be an indicator key species for that locale. He had chosen the Marsh Wren to represent a region he was devoted to in the Midwest, and down on Baja California beaches, he chose a species of hermit crab as typical of that place. Another man had chosen the wind to represent the dominating force along a coastal area. Whatever you choose becomes a beacon - a "key" representative - for the general landscape, and when it dissipates or disappears, you know something is wrong.

Thus I came to consider what species I would choose to be "keeper of the keys" and represent the Blue Oak Meadow and the Feather River region around Oroville, California.

As I was walking through the oaks, an Acorn Woodpecker dipped across the meadow to land on one of its storage trees, and I thought that was a keeper choice. But then it is a communal bird and generally occupies a limited portion of the habitat. The species is not general or plentiful enough to be a key.

Then there was the resident California Towhee but, as common as it is, the tendency for the brown bird is to cling to the thickets where it scratches out a living. There must be a better choice. A mammal, or even a reptile could also qualify, but deer and even lizards are rather retiring and avoid the spotlight.

The crowned sparrow tribe is plentiful - but only in the wintertime when they gather in groups as if to confront the weather together. A key should be a consistently apparent participant, and although the sparrows are treasured birds of the community, sufficiently noticeable to be a key, their absence during the summer months made them unsuitable.

The vocal wrens along the brushy ravines would make a suitable entry, and their cheery song and eagerness to search out tiny spiders and insects hidden in the rubble makes them an admirable species to consider. They just didn't seem like the proper choice though.

Along the river, a few mergansers spend the summer although the concentrations in winter are more spectacular. No, not mergansers. The vultures that gather in the fall to feed on dead salmon are inconsistent in their presence, apt to be lured off to a distant hill where some animal has been found dead. Red-tailed Hawks are scattered in population, and smaller woodland hawks can rarely be seen. Our State Bird, the California Quail, is too fleeting to be fully felt. All of the winter migrants, as joyfully as we view their return and admire their handsome plumage, are also not suitable as a key to the Feather River habitat.

Thinking about birds, I began to wonder and worry about a type of indicator bird that was missing - gulls.  They have appeared every winter to feed on the dying salmon, and usually they arrive as salmon gather in early September, but this year there were no gulls as it neared October. Where were they? Why was the pattern disrupted? Then on September 22, a dozen gulls were on the gravel bar. You like to be assured that the bird liveth. If word is getting around that there are dead salmon at Oroville, how does the word get around?

It is very worrisome when a wildlife community becomes disorganized and sometimes destroyed in wildfire or something like industrial encroachment. I had a troublesome dream recently depicting one of my favorite wildlife places in Floyd's Timber in Missouri Rural Days as being endangered. A housing tract was going to be built on the forested hills and already a fresh dirt road went plunging through the landscape. I knew that wasn't true, because just two weeks previously I had visited my homeland and could see a healthy Floyd's Timber that had expanded up the hollow toward the old hill home, and I was happy that the habitat thrived.

I was relieved to see that particular woods intact, just as you are always gratified to return to a favorite niche and find things OK. In Floyd's Timber, I hope the regular cast of occupants are present, and I suspect the quiet forest aisles ring with the shrill call of the eastern Blue Jay and that the quiet cardinal flashes through the thickets. That's the way you want it to be. But there comes a time when some unknown factor creeps in to upset the balance. Pesticides, disrupted food supplies, weather disasters, construction - all of those factors can influence wildlife populations.

Remembering the major role that the eastern Blue Jay plays in the forest brought me to the realization that the animal I should pick as keeper of the keys in my vicinity was the Western Scrub-Jay. Like its eastern cousin, it is a flashy, widespread resident seemingly all over the forest checking out any disturbance and always alert to food opportunities.

The scrub-jay is my choice for keeper of the keys! No other local animal is so apparent as the jaunty jays that dash through the understory, or even perches at the top of a tree as if to survey their domain. If the scrub-jays should disappear, I would know something was desperately wrong with the ecological realm. They are truly the sentinels of nearly every outdoor place along the Feather River, and their harsh calls alert other animals to unusual intruders.

That notable bird with the lovely blue coat is hardy, and its thick bill not only crushes untold insects, but can pluck berries and fruits in its omnivorous occupation of scouting every tree and bush in the wild.

When I see the scrub-jay flying through the forest, or descending to the meadow for a bug, I will be reminded that nature's interactions are in proper process, and the keeper is functioning in its role, maintaining a key position, and representing a member of free America!

2002 Rex Burress
September 22, 2002