Steller’s curse

Posted by Ken Campbell December 14, 2010 0 Comment 1686 views

As I was walking down a forest trail just the other day, I heard the distinctive grack, grack, grack of the Steller’s jay. After a moment or two of searching the underbrush, I saw the distinctive topknot, the blue and black feathers and the coal-black eyes of this singularly beautiful bird.

The Steller’s jay is common around here, common enough anyway. During the summer months, they can often be seen at the higher elevations, along with their cousin, the ubiquitous gray jay. “Camp robbers,” as they are known in the colloquial, famous for raiding food that’s left unattended, or for landing on heads and shoulders as they aggressively look for a handout. Winter brings the Steller’s jays down to the low country a bit more often, and I always enjoy it when I catch a glimpse of the blue flashes among the dark green hues of the woods.

They take their name from Georg Wilhelm Steller, the German-born naturalist who accompanied Captain Vitus Bering on his acclaimed voyage of discovery through Alaskan waters in 1741. The trip was a particularly arduous one, even by the grim standards of the day, and by the time Bering made it back to Russia – where the voyage had begun – more than a third of the crew had perished. Steller had, however, been able to record details on hundreds of species along the way and the fact that any of the men were able to return was a testament to his medical knowledge and treatment of their scurvy after their ship had been wrecked on a rocky island far out in the Aleutian chain.

He was born under a bad sign, it would seem, this Dr. Steller. Not only were many of his discoveries claimed by others but he ended up dying prematurely, at age 37, in remote Siberia, without receiving any credit for much of what he had done in those short years. If it stopped there, he could probably be considered cursed enough.

But consider this: of the six species of birds and mammals that were named for the star-crossed scientist, two are extinct (the Steller’s sea cow and the Steller’s spectacled cormorant), and three are endangered or in severe decline (Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s eider and Steller’s sea eagle). The sea cow, in particular, a massive northern relative of the manatee, lasted barely 25 years after Steller discovered and named it, a victim of the rapacious otter-hunting Russian crews that followed in Bering’s wake. To be named after this unfortunate man was to be doomed to a precarious existence at best, or perhaps a death sentence.

The exception, the only species that is still around in any numbers, is the instantly recognizable and mischievous Steller’s jay. In his brief encounter with the bird – he had been allowed a mere 10 hours to go ashore and collect specimens when Bering’s ship made initial landfall in Alaska – Steller was able to deduce that the jay was kin to the American bluejay, which convinced him that Alaska was indeed part of North America. In the years since, while the other species associated with him by name have become more scarce or have disappeared altogether, the Steller’s jay is still around, still squawking in the brush and raiding the feeders.

The complete story has not yet been written, however. Although the Steller’s jay has been able to adapt to the pressures of civilization, it is still susceptible to the threat of intense urbanization and, as woodlands and wild areas become more scarce, its numbers will inevitably be reduced. In addition, with the rise in human population, Steller’s jays have been implicated in the decline of other species, most notably the marbled murrelet, as they raid the nests of these heavily endangered birds.

Everything, of course, is connected. Everything.

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