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Trying to protect a rare bird on Santa Cruz Island

October 17, 2010 |  7:45 pm

Island scrub jay

The island scrub jay is not officially endangered but could be in peril: Biologists working in Channel Islands National Park worry that it's easy pickings for the West Nile virus, which could swiftly wipe out the species once infected mosquitoes or birds cross the Santa Barbara Channel.

"It's imprudent to think it's not going to happen," said Scott Morrison, director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy in California. "It's just a matter of time."

Working on and off for more than a year, a crew has been laboriously trapping jays one by one and inoculating them with a vaccine produced — initially for condors — by the Centers for Disease Control. By next spring, the crew on Santa Cruz will have given the needle to about 250 birds — enough, they hope, to form a disease-resistant core if West Nile takes out all the rest.

Coordinated by the Nature Conservancy, which owns 76% of Santa Cruz, the complex effort draws on scientists from the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, the Smithsonian Institution and Colorado State University. Just figuring out the size of the jay population was no simple task: For a week in the fall and a week in the spring, a helicopter flew keen-eyed observers with laser range finders to some 300 locations to look and listen for jays.

Read more: "Taking a rare jay under their wing."

-- Steve Chawkins

Photo: Katie Langin, a graduate student from Colorado State University, checks on the condition of a captured island scrub jay on Santa Cruz Island on October 7, 2010. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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