By Joe Rankin
I have friends who live in the North Woods. Moose graze on their lawn. Loons call from the pond. And the gray jays line up on the deck railing for breakfast. They swoop in when they hear the coffeemaker rev up, knowing that my friend Pam will soon be out to feed them. If she isn’t quick enough, they start pecking at the window.
The gray jay, Perisoreus canadensis, is the Jack Russell terrier of the bird world. It’s smart, brazen, and attracted to people.
“It’s a fun bird to study,” said William Barnard, a biology professor at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, who has observed gray jays for about a quarter century, mostly at Victory Bog in the state’s Northeast Kingdom. Barnard is one of only a handful of scientists in North America who study the species. He’s banded 147 gray jays and outfitted 35 with radio tags to track them. He has discovered a lot about the bird, including how to determine gender by wing length. However, he still has many questions to answer, including why the Victory Bog jays appear to be bigger than those he’s studied elsewhere, and why they have fewer blood parasites.
The gray jay lives year round in the spruce-fir forests of Canada and the northern U.S. It’s a member of the corvid (crow) family, but even compared to its not-so-bashful blue jay and black crow cousins, this bird has a bold personality.
An omnivore if there ever was one, the gray jay has learned to associate humans with food. Barnard’s observations suggest adults teach their young to panhandle. And they learn quickly. No one knows when this started–perhaps when the first humans came across the Bering land bridge, they were met by a gray jay asking, “You want to share that mastodon meat?”
One of the bird’s many nicknames–whiskey jack–is believed to be a corruption of an Algonquin word for prankster. Trappers found the birds would follow them to pilfer their bait and lumberjacks, that they would rummage through their camps. Thus another nickname–camp robber.
Barnard’s offering of choice is English muffins. The birds recognize his truck. They come down for the muffins, but they’re wary. He’s taken blood samples from a lot of them and, like your dog at the vet, they remember the bad experience.
Gray jays have a memory like a Vegas card counter. They need it. They are “scatter- hoarders.” They mix food with super sticky saliva and tuck it into the bark of spruce trees at randomly selected spots in their territory. Gray jays create thousands of food caches, by some estimates up to 8,000 at one time, and retrieve some 80 percent of those morsels (what happens to the other 20 percent isn’t clear, though raids by other animals and spoilage surely take a toll).
The caches allow the jays to live year round in an area with brutal winters and to begin nesting early–February and March. Their young leave the nest in early May, when many migratory species are just arriving.
While gray jays hatch several young, the dominant sibling takes over and drives the others out. The top bird stays with the parents for at least a year, while the others fend for themselves. The subdominant birds “have a very high mortality rate,” noted Barnard.
Although gray jays are not common in Vermont and New Hampshire, there’s reason to think that the species is losing ground. Barnard has noticed a drop in the Victory Bog population and wonders whether gray jays should go on the state’s endangered species list. The news from over the border is also worrying: a researcher in Ontario found fewer young were raised following a warm fall and winter. The theory: warmer temperatures interfere with the bird’s niche as a winter hoarder, resulting in more food spoilage, fewer young, and a gradual retrenchment northward.
Barnard understands that gray jays may not have much of a future in our region, but he would hate to see them go. “They’re absolutely delightful birds,” he said. He remembers watching a sharp-shinned hawk hunting a gray jay. The jay would hop out of the way, like a matador swinging his red cape, seemingly playing with the hawk. “It’s a classic example of gray jay attitude,” Barnard said.
The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine.