Gray Jays

Gray Jays are great companions. They mostly just want to be fed twice a day, especially when the unruly gang of ten blue Steller's Jays aren't hogging the handouts. One of the many highlights of my day is to put out feed at dawn for the birds where it disappears in a squabbling frenzy. The birds, evidently watching hopefully from nearby, descend when I go out the door. The Steller's are dominant, mostly by virtue of the breeding success of two pair last Spring, and try to frighten off the mated pair of Grays who were apparently less successful, having no young in their territory to introduce to me. These two species are the only regular feathered visitors to Shalom in Winter, although a dozen or so songbirds frequent the place in warmer months. Watchful Ravens, Clark's Nutcrackers (also a jay), Great Horned Owls, and Red Tail Hawks also winter over, but are mostly heard or seen only at a distance.

The Grays certainly seem the smartest of the jays, or at least the most inquisitive and human interested of the bunch. They follow me around and often perch at arm's length, head cocked to the side to see this strange, benevolent creature one eye at a time. When the human is not outside, they often perch on the window sill inches from my laptop, seeming to say, "Psst! They're not here. You can feed us now and those blue thugs won't get any."

Jays have been known to live 17 years. Our current pair are likely descendants of those we met when building Shalom. The Grays are sometimes called Canadian Jays, or colloquially, Camp Birds or Camp Robbers. Our little side road is aptly named Campbird Lane.

More on Gray Jays from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Gray Jay stores large quantities of food for later use. It uses sticky saliva to glue small food items to tree branches above the height of the eventual snow line. It may be this food storage behavior that allows the jay to live so far north throughout the winter.

Gray Jays eat arthropods, berries, carrion, nestling birds, and fungi. They learn quickly to recognize and look for human food, as well as take advantage of game that has been shot or trapped by hunters. When foraging, the Gray Jay scans its surroundings from a succession of perches, each a short flight apart from one another. It will snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds, and occasionally pursue small birds like chickadees and warblers. Unlike Blue Jays, which hammer with their bills on hard food, Gray Jays wrench off pieces by twisting and tugging. They store food year-round by producing special saliva from large glands and molding the food into a sticky blob, gluing it behind flakes of bark, under lichen, in conifer needles, or in tree forks. They seem to have a good success rate of remembering where they have stored food.

The Gray Jay usually flies slowly, gliding with its wings angled downward, but it is capable of fast, maneuverable flight when escaping a predator or disputing territory with another jay. Gray Jays roost close to the trunk of a full-bodied spruce, balsam fir, or other conifer tree, and often sunbathe on wind-protected perches. They stay with their mates as long as both birds are alive, and the members of a territorial pair rarely leave each other’s sides. The pair breeds in frigid conditions during February and March. In June, the biggest member of the brood kicks its siblings out of the parents’ territory, which it then uses as a safe haven until a nearby territory becomes available. The displaced siblings go looking for unrelated adult pairs whose own nests have failed, in the hopes of adopting their own safe havens. If a young bird is still hanging around the following year, the breeding pair prevents it from approaching the nest—but the young bird may help feed the new chicks once they fledge. Gray Jays use alarm calls, chattering, screaming, and mobbing when hawks, owls, or crows approach. They tend to be fearless of humans, particularly when human food is involved.