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1: The Blue-Backed Whangdoodle (Cyanocitta laeduco)



The elusive Blue-Backed Whangdoodle is often heard in the High Sierra, but it is rarely seen except as a brief, brilliant streak of blue in the distance. In the early days of exploration of the west, sighting were discounted as hallucinations of those stricken with thirst, travelers hoping to come to the blue sea but confronted instead by the Sierra. Though beautiful in color, the whangdoodle's song is not nearly so pleasant. It's call is in fact a defense mechanism which the whangdoodle uses to repel competitors from its favorite food, the wild blueberry. A blue-backed whangdoodle must consume three times its body weight per day in blueberries to store enough pigment to maintain it's brilliant blue color year round. Excess pigment is stored for the winter in two small fatty flaps under the birds wings. These are its "doodles."

Maintaining pigment over the winter is important to spring mating rituals. In a forest full of the dripping and avalanching sounds of melting snow and filled with the scents of spring flowers, the whangdoodle must rely on sight to find other mates. When a pair of whangdoodles encounters one another, they will briefly touch tails and fly together to a clearing. Then the male will lift his wings to show off his "doodles" and fly off in a display to impress the female. The male will repeated circle the clearing, landing on trees in an intricate pattern. The male will perch on the exact same branches in each circuit of the clearing, and it is said that by observing which trees the male whangdoodle chooses, one can tell which trees will be struck by lightning in the coming year. If the female is pleased with the male's display, she will flare her wings to show her "doodles," and the pair will nest together for half a year in hollow top of a lightning-struck tree. If the female is displeased, she will screetch at the male until he leaves.

The blue-backed whangdoodle's chief competitor for food is the black bear. The harsh cry of the whangdoodle, particularly when gathering in small flocks of three to four birds, is enough to send a bear climbing up a tree to safety. When a flock of whangdoodles chases a bear up a tree, one bird will guard the bear and continue its attack cry while its fellows feed. This bird will circle the tree closely about two meters below the bear, just out of reach a deadly claw-stroke. If the bird circles fast enough, the bear may believe it sees a piece of blue sky below it and become disoriented, sometimes causing it to fall from the tree to its death. With droughts reducing the blueberry crop over the past several decades, this behavior has caused many of the remaining black bears of the Sierra to become injured, malnourished, and temperamental, leaving them to either starve in the winter or to attack campsites for food.

In order to protect the bear population, the National Park Service has begun selling licenses for small game hunters to hunt the Blue-Backed Whangdoodle. Licenses may be obtained at any Sequoia, Kings Canyon, or Yosemite National Park ranger stations for a modest fee of $10. Whangdoodles are traditionally killed with bird-shot, although bb gun and bow and arrow are also effective. The whangdoodle possesses a pleasant flavor when grilled over a camp fire, particularly if one slices open the "doodles" midway through broiling, allowing the fowl to marinate in its own stored juices.

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February 2013

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