Western Scrub Jays are Replanting the Desert One Acorn at a Time | KCET
Western Scrub Jays are Replanting the Desert One Acorn at a Time
We really won't know what the long-term effects of wildfire are on a typical desert landscape for perhaps a century, perhaps longer. It's only been a few years -- six in July -- since the Sawtooth Complex Fire, named for a striking small range of mountains near Pioneertown, immolated 61,700 acres in the hills above Yucca Valley. That's hardly enough time to survey the extent of the damage, much less to expect the burned desert to heal itself. And if the desert does heal, it's likely to be quite different from what was there before the fire.
July 2006 would have been a bad month for the environs of Joshua Tree National Park even without the Sawtooth Complex fire. Burns in the Covington Flat area of the park ate up about 1,500 acres of desert wildland in that same month. But the Sawtooth Complex Fire, sparked July 9 by lightning strikes, dwarfed them. By the time the Sawtooth merged with the Millard Complex Fire on July 14, burning northward out of the San Gorgonio Wilderness, the two had burned over 80,000 acres -- more than half the area of 2009's catastrophic Station Fire. The economic damage was considerable, with more than 50 residences and 200 vehicles destroyed. One person, Jerry Guthrie of Pioneertown, died in the fire -- as did countless wild animals.
This video, taken by firefighter Dominic Pulsipher at the intersection of Pipes Canyon and Pioneertown roads, shows the frightening aggressiveness of the fire in its early days:
Hiking up Pipes Canyon as I did this past weekend one can still see abundant evidence of the fire. A funereal forest of blackened snags lines both north and south slopes of the canyon, the remains of piñon pines and California junipers, and perhaps a few other tree species. Burned Joshua trees, still holding their dead leaves six years later, strike stark poses against a clear desert sky.
Western scrub jays, Aphelocoma californica, are birds in the crow family that range from western Washington state to Texas, and south into Mexico. They are among the smartest of vertebrates. They seem to consciously plan for the future, a trait shared only by humans and not all of us at that. Scrub jays cache food -- they hide it in secret spots throughout their territory -- and can not only remember the locations of 200 or more distinct caches, but what kind of food is in those caches, whether it's perishable or not, and who watched them cache it. In a study published two months before the Sawtooth Fire, researchers noted some of the intricacies of scrub jay planning:
Even the best inventory management system has its drawbacks, though, and jays do lose a significant portion of their acorn caches to germination. There isn't much most oak seeds need to germinate well other than to be planted about one jay's-beak deep and left for a few months. Germination isn't really a loss for the jay in the long term. Before long a new tree grows from that "lost" acorn, ready to offer up hundreds of acorns a year in place of the one invested. The oaks here seem to bear good crops: each shrub I examine bears hundreds of empty caps still attached to their twigs.
Scrub jays have a life expectancy of about nine years, which means some of them here may be older than the fire. I find it tempting to imagine them looking on their restored forest with some satisfaction.
It's possible that this shift from conifers to oaks is a semi-permanent change in the landscape. Eventually, a jay may decide to cache a beak-full of pine nuts and juniper berries in a convenient spot that will grow into new seed sources for recolonization. Or not. The desert is getting warmer, and pinyons and junipers are having tough times even where they haven't been burned out. For now, it looks as though oaks are set to be the predominant vegetation in this canyon, along with a few Joshua trees that have resprouted from their bases:
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.
For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.
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