The Gray Jay

If you live in or near the boreal forest that stretches across north eastern United States, through all provinces and territories of Canada, to Alaska and Rocky Mountains, or subalpine zone south to New Mexico and Arizona, then there is a very good chance that you have met this "Woodsman’s Friend".

These gregarious, adventurous and handsome birds will seek you out, especially in the shoulder seasons. And, with no coaxing necessary will share lunch with you. Your lunch actually!




My personal experience has been exactly that. You don't walk away from your picnic food even for a minute, because if you do, you will need to find something else to eat.

The Gray Jay travels in a group so you will seldom be visited by just one. This makes their clean-up job of your meal, swift!


What's in a Name?

"that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet"

(William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet)

How many birds do you know have been given so many names by such a variety of peoples?

  • The Cree Natives - "Wisakedjak" is the Cree mythological figure that was the origin of one of the Gray Jay's other names "Whiskey Jack". The Cree people believe the "wihsakecahkw" is a benign spirit, fun-loving and cheerful. It is no wonder they related this perky little bird to a "fun-loving and cheerful" spirit. The bird is seen in Cree stories as an example of good manners and good company.
  • Lumberjacks
  • American Ornithologists’ Union
  • And now a nation would join this list of namers! (More on that further down.)


During the lumbering days of North America in "Camp-robber" territory lumberjacks and throughout history knew this grey bird by other names too:

Gray Jay

Whisky Jack (Cdn spelling)

Whiskey Jack (US spelling)

Whiskey John

Lumberjacks

Gorbeys - The Scottish origin might come from the word “Gorb”, which has a double meaning: ‘glutton’ and ‘unfledged bird’.

Canada Jay -by english speaking people for 200 years

Meat-bird

Camp-robber

Venison-hawk

Moose-bird

Hudson Bay,

Caribou Bird

Grease Bird

Woodsman’s Friend

French is Mésangeai du Canada.


Canadian Geographic Chose the Gray Jay to be

Canada's National Symbol

How to Describe the Gray Jay?

  • Its wingspan is around 18 inches (or 45 cm).
  • It weighs about 2.3 to 2.7 ounces (or 65 to 70 grams).
  • Males are slightly larger than females.
  • These birds can live for up to 19 years.
  • Its build is stocky, with thick feathers, soft, fluffy plumage, long tails, and broad, rounded wings. Their heads are round with short, stout bills.
  • It has a white face and scarf around neck with darker shades of gray above and lighter shades of gray below. A black patch at the back of the head. Youth are more evenly coloured in a darker gray all over.
  • Belongs to the family Corvidae which is part of the passerine birds (meaning songbirds).
  • The Corvid family which includes Ravens, Crows, Jackdaws, Jays, Magpies, Choughs, Rooks, Treepies, Nutcrackers has superior intelligence, surpasing most mammals. 
  • Just in case you really wanted to know the Grey Jay's Latin name is Perisoreus canadensis. ;)
  • And they are "altricial", meaning "requiring nourishment", meaning the chicks when born are completely dependent on their parents. 


This friendly Jay is quieter than some other Jays. Using hoots and chatters to communicate with other vocalizations.

They hang out in small groups, mated pairs always together, and do a lot of swooping while in flight.


What is Family Life Like?

Males and females mate for life spending their days together, while defending their territory, foraging and raising a family.

They do not migrate, but stay with their stored food supply from the previous summer's caching activity. And because of this, they begin nesting in February while winter is in full force.

Their nest which is built by both the male and the female is a bulky flat cup of twigs, lichens, strips of bark, and caterpillar webs, lined with softer materials including animal hair and feathers.

The female is the only one to sit on the eggs. Two to five eggs, are a pale gray to greenish, dotted with brown, olive, or reddish. 

These Jays practice "allofeeding"; which is one adult bird feeding another of the same species. Often observed during courtship or when an adult is sitting on eggs and depending on their mate to feed them. The Gray Jay female will call for her mate from the nest when she is hungry.

Both parents will feed the young birds while they are growing in the nest for about 23 days. 

The young birds will live in the same territory with the parents until one sibling, usually a male, drives the others away. These young birds will find their own territory to live, or join an adult pair who were not successful in having their own young.


What is on the Whiskey Jack's Menu?

The lumberjacks often fed them any leftovers they may have had because they enjoyed the company of these hardy birds.

They have a very varied, omnivorous diet of:

  1. berries
  1. arthropods - insects - sometimes caught in mid-air, arachnids, myriapods, and crustaceans
  1. carrion  
  1. baby birds
  1. fungi
  1. just about anything
  1. and anything on your menu, that isn't important enough for you to protect or whatever you want to share! ;)


What is Caching?

Gray Jays cache food all summer and into fall to supply a steady meal plan all winter long.

This is how they do it:

The food is mulled about in their mouth until it forms a mass covered with saliva. This sticky mass is then hidden under bark or lichen.

They will cache thousands of items all summer for eating in winter, remembering where most of them were hidden. Storage may also be assisted by the antibacterial properties of the bark and foliage of boreal tree species.

Caching their food may be the number one reason they have a much lesser death rate than almost all other songbirds.

To back this statement up I am including a direct quote.

The following excerpt is from "The Science Behind Algonquins Animals".

Gray Jay Research in Algonquin Park

But first just a little background about Algonguin Park for those who are not familiar with this historic Canadian environmental park.

Algonquin Park was the result of the effort of American Naturalist John Muir and his followers to create a park to promote environmentalism in Ontario in 1893.

This is the same John Muir who used the same environmental arguments to help create the development of the National Park System in the United States of America, such as Yosemite Park.

John Muir's enduring love for wildlife and his tireless efforts to preserve our wilderness for the enjoyment of future generations in North America, led to these wonderful wilderness refuges.



It Pays to Stay at Home

Because Gray Jays depend on stored food for their winter survival, they can't wander far from home.

They have to live on permanent year-round territories which, in Algonquin Park, measure about 150 hectares. That is a very large size for a bird as small as a Gray Jay but of course the territory has to produce enough food (insects, spiders, berries, mushrooms, nestling birds and carrion) not just for summer survival but to get the pair through winter as well.

It sounds as if Gray Jays might get into trouble if their stored food happened to run out before spring but, at least in Algonquin Park, this never seems to happen.

In fact, their store-food-and-stay-at-home strategy allows Gray Jays to avoid the very real dangers of migrating south each fall and back north again each spring.

Other birds in Algonquin that have to migrate often have an annual death rate of 40 to 50 percent. That is, almost half of all the songbirds present in one spring will die before another year has passed.

Territory-holding Gray Jays, however, have an average death rate of less than 20 percent.

This means that individual Gray Jays often live for more than ten years (16 is the record in Algonquin) whereas very few migratory birds make it to their fourth or fifth birthday.

What's more, most Gray Jay deaths occur, not in the supposedly foodless winters, but in the summer! The probable reason for this is that migratory, bird-eating hawks, such as Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins are present in summer but gone in the winter.

Whatever the case, winter is not a particularly dangerous season for Gray Jays and running out of food is clearly not a problem.


Interesting isn't it.

Gives thought, that the popularity of backyard bird feeding during the winter months may be partly responsible for the better survival rate of those songbirds who partake of bird  feeders, compared to those who do not. Migration is a very difficult task indeed!


"Bird Tails"?

Many stories have evolved over the years about this handsome, interesting, people loving bird. Some stories are based on folklore, some are fun, some are curious and some stories you may wish you never heard! 


First Story

It is not only this Jay who has been reported practicing this behaviour I am about to share. Many birds around the world demonstrate this same type of symbiotic behaviour.

Reports were told by people who were hunting being led by a Gray Jay to their prey. The birds had a better view and knowledge of where deer and moose would be in the forest. 

The Gray Jay was accustomed to finding these animals as they would land on their backs to feed on the fleas and ticks that lived on and under the skin of forest animals.

The hunters, after killing the animal, would return the favour to their scout by leaving some meat for the birds. In this way ensuring a continued relationship between scout and hunter.




Second Story

The "Moose Bird", because of its colour and not posessing a crest like other Jays, was believed by some lumberjacks to be the ghost of a dead lumberjack.




Third Story

Many stories abound from the days of lumbering. Deep in the forest for days and months on end, the lumberjacks had each other and the "Woodsman’s Friend" for company. 

Most lumberjacks found these Jays good company and entertaining. But not all. 

There is a story that has been told about one lumberjack who caught a "Camp-robber" one day, for whatever reason, perhaps one of these birds nabbed something special of his, and carted it away. Or maybe he was just cross at having to be so far away from his family.

We will never know what possessed him to grab a bird that day, but the story says he did and then he began plucking it's feathers, one by one. When the bird was completely naked he let him go.

The bird of course died that night. Possibly from the cold or because he could no longer fly he may have become easy prey.

It is believed that this story is the origin of the saying "Naked as a Jay Bird"!


The Gray Jay is Recommended as Canada's New National Bird!

This is what took place.

From The National Bird Project's website:


"There are more than 450 species of birds across Canada, but until now, not one of them has been designated as our national bird. In 2015, the team at Canadian Geographic decided it was time to change that, and founded the National Bird Project with the aim of declaring an official bird for Canada by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation."


After two years and three phases of the project were undertaken.

1. Canadians were asked to vote with convincing reasons for their choice, almost 50,000 citizens responded, leaving five top choices.

2. A panel of experts was convened to debate in their opinion which bird should be chosen for Canada's National Bird.

3. Canadian Geographic made the announcement on November 16, 2016 recommending yhat the Gray Jay be officially named the National Bird by the Canadain Government for Canada's 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Read my thoughts on the whole process &

interesting stories about this Jays many names.


References:

allaboutbirds.org

nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca/

canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay

http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/gray-jay

strangenewengland.com/podcast/sne-podcast-04-the-man-who-plucked-the-gorbey/

motherboard.vice.com/read/the-unexpected-genius-of-corvids

http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Corvus_frugilegus

Donald MacKay "Lumberjacks" Natural Heritage Books" 1998

Wikipedia.org - with caution.


Learn About Other Types of Birds

  • Life In A Goldfinch Nest This is a story in video of an adventure into the beginning of life for four Goldfinch youths.
  • Full Fledge: Goldfinches Full fledge day is the next video along the path of the journey for the young Goldfinch chicks.
  • Gray Jay Meet this energetic, gregarious Jay that will quickly become one of your favourite birds. You may even be spurred on to visit an area where you can share lunch with this fun bird.
  • Hummingbirds Learn about the Western Hemispheres most interesting bird and the worlds smallest bird. Intriguing is only the beginning.
  • Great Blue Heron One of the biggest and best fishermen of the bird world. A beautiful bird, a denizen of the shore.


> Gray Jay





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