Nature News from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) #2

Last night the temperature dropped to -10 degrees F. That came as a surprise to us (sort of) but maybe not for all the creatures with whom we share this place.  This kind of event is not unusual in the Greater Yellowstone area. Even prior to changing climates it was typical for us to experience what seemed like the arrival of spring with melting snow and warmer temperatures, only to have a few winter storms and cold fronts come through.  Over the last days we’ve had a tremendous number of Gray Jays  Perisorius canadensis, Steller’s Jays Cyanocitta stelleri , Clark’s Nutcrackers Nucifraga columbiana , Mountain Chickadees Parus gambeli, Red Breasted Nuthatches Cita canadensis and recently Dark-eyed Juncos Junco hyemalis feverishly gathering seed  I threw outside (no feeders as bears are emerging from their dens) and stuffing their crops.

Mountain Chickadee

Fat birds have a better chance of surviving cold weather and can sense a change in air pressure indicating a weather change. Another adaptation which helps these flying creatures is (you guessed it) feathers!  Fluffy down feathers and expanding space between quill feathers help trap body heat and keep the cold temps away from their skin. Some of these species will roost together in a very sheltered conifer tree, crevices in the bark or anywhere that will keep them protected from the coldest of temperatures and wind.

These late severe temperature changes can be disastrous for some individuals.  Nesting has begun for a few of these species and fluctuations like this can stop an early nesting attempt.  If there has been any early molting, it can cause an inability to create warm airspaces as they fluff up their feathers.  This may prevent them from keeping body temperatures high enough to survive a cold night.  With a spring freeze it can become very difficult to find open water. All life forms need this for survival. The crust of ice that forms on the surface of the snow can make it impossible for birds to get to their caches they have stored for winter food sources. Steller’s Jays, Gray Jays, Clarks Nutcrackers, Mountain Chickadees and Red Breasted Nuthatches are all known to cache food.  If food is not available, birds may move to an area where it is more abundant.  So if later that year, you don’t see as many of your favorite species, don’t fear.  It may not be they didn’t survive the spring freeze; it could be they have moved on to greener pastures.


Gray Jay with a full beak

Corvids (not Covid, as in19, just a play on words for these times….) are a family of birds, including some I mentioned above.  Jays, Nutcrackers, Ravens, Crows and Magpies are all members of this family. This family of birds is considered a considered a highly intelligent bunch.  Stories of ravens, jays, magpies and other Corvidae go back through time and point to birds that are adaptable, can learn, analyze situations, problem solve, care for their injured or sick and grieve the deaths of fellow individuals.  Neurologist, Stanely Cobb, researched a part of this avian brain called the “hyperstriatum”.  Mammals lack this. The larger this part of their brain, the higher they perform on tasks indicating intelligence. Corvids are at the high end of these tests and are tops among birds for brain size!

Stellar’s Jay

Candace Savage (Author of “Bird Brains; the intelligence of Crows, Magpies, Ravens and Jays” is the source of so much Corvid information) says “very smart animals tend to be social”. She uses humans, dolphins, whales, parrots and corvids as examples of this.  Watch a group of any of these species and you will observe some of the most interesting, humorous and often playful behavior.
Steller’s Jay and Blue Jay are the Corvids with crests.  Both have large vocabularies and the ability to mimic. Sometimes out in the woods thinking I hear a Red Tailed Hawk I look up to realize I’ve been tricked by a Steller’s Jay once more!

Photo Credit: Jowayne Curran

Thanks so much for reading this newsletter. It can be found as a blog on the website In this time of “self-isolation”, I find great joy in immersing myself and writing a bit about the world around me. I encourage you to look there for peace and solace. A friend wrote me today…

It’s interesting to think about how the human world has been turned upside down, but that the rest of nature just marches forward undaunted.”

Please pass this on to friends who might enjoy.   Leslie

You can contact me at

Leave a Reply