No Denial about West Nile: Protecting the Island Scrub-Jay

Protecting Birds of a Feather

Pictures of our work to save the island scrub-jay.

Story Highlights
  • Scientists from The Nature Conservancy and more than a dozen other leading research and conservation institutions published a groundbreaking paper in the December 2011 edition of BioScience calling for proactive conservation management of the island scrub-jay.
  • Island scrub-jays occur only on Santa Cruz Island; it’s one of the rarest and potentially most vulnerable birds in North America.
  • West Nile has caused widespread declines of birds in North America—and is especially lethal for birds in the jay family.
  • Because these birds are isolated on an island, we can vaccinate them now, before this potentially deadly disease reaches them.

"A hard lesson that's been learned around the world is how vulnerable island species are and how quickly they can go extinct."

Scott Morrison, director of conservation science for the Conservancy in California

Question: So how do today's leading scientists capture a rare island scrub-jay for cutting-edge West Nile virus vaccination program?

Answer: With a box and stick.

Here’s how it goes: A researcher props up a wire mesh box with a stick that’s got a string attached to it. A peanut is placed beneath the upraised box, and when the jay goes for the peanut, the scientist, waiting nearby, yanks the string, trapping the jay in the box.

“It’s not sophisticated, but it works,” says Scott Morrison, director of conservation science for the Conservancy in California.

With the jay then in hand, scientists gather data about that individual bird and vaccinate it against West Nile virus.

Morrison is working with a team of top scientists from the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, the Smithsonian Institution and Colorado State University to design and implement a groundbreaking vaccination program to protect the island scrub-jay against this mosquito-transmitted disease.

Preventative Measures

The island scrub-jays are the only island-restricted bird species in North America—and they are found only on Santa Cruz Island, which is co-managed by the Conservancy and the National Park Service.

Considering that the island is only 20 miles from the coast of Santa Barbara, it’s surprising that West Nile hasn’t yet established there. Outbreaks have been common on the mainland ever since the disease arrived in southern California in 2003.

The jay family, which includes crows, ravens, and magpies, is particularly vulnerable to the disease. As many as half of the world’s yellow-billed magpies—California’s other endemic bird species—died within three years of the virus’ appearance. Researchers are concerned that West Nile could have a much more disastrous effect on island scrub-jays because they are far less abundant than the magpie.

So Morrison and his team are taking precautions now to protect the jay. “As the climate continues to warm, the environment will become more hospitable to mosquitoes so it’s only a matter of time before the disease gets out to the island. I don’t think we should rely on a narrow stretch of water to keep this disease at bay,” said Morrison.

Your support of our critical conservation work is what makes possible our on-the-ground projects that protect rare species like the scrub-jay.

Island Species Are Vulnerable

“A hard lesson that’s been learned around the world is how vulnerable island species are and how quickly they can go extinct. We’re working proactively to protect the island scrub-jay before we see signs of a problem,” Morrison said.

To date, more than 100 birds out of an estimated total population of 2,400 have been vaccinated. The vaccine is similar to one used to protect California condors against West Nile virus.

“Our goal is to increase the number of scrub-jays that would survive an outbreak,” Morrison said. “In that regard, this program is similar to the strategy we use to protect the Santa Cruz Island fox from catastrophic diseases like distemper.”

According to Morrison, this effort marks a new chapter in the Conservancy’s work on Santa Cruz Island, now in its fourth decade.

“Much of our restoration focus in the past has had to be reactive—removing invasive species, managing extinction crises and so on. Our focus now is applying conservation lessons learned around the world to prevent crises—which is especially important in the face of global climate change.”