For the Birds Radio Program: Gray Jays

Original Air Date: Jan. 23, 1987

A record-number of Gray Jays are flying about the Duluth area.

Duration: 3′21″


(Recording of a Gray Jay)

This is the year of the Gray Jay, known to many people as the Canada Jay, whisky jack or the camp robber. 54 of them were tallied on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, a record for the city, and 151 were seen on another Minnesota count–in Isabella–setting the all-time record anywhere in North America. The previous record was of 150 Gray Jays in a wildlife reserve in Alberta, Canada, last year.

Although Gray Jays are all over the city, it’s not as easy as you might think to see them. In wilderness areas these birds are famous for their audacity and tameness, but, for some reason, when they’re actually inside a city, they become wary and shy. Sometimes the ones in my neighborhood move along the periphery of a chickadee flock. The best way to attract them is with suet, but now that suet costs 59 cents a pound or more at most stores, you may not think the gray jays are worth it. In my yard, every time I fill my suet feeder, it’s all gone in a couple of hours–the gray jays carry it all off to hide in their storehouses, called caches. I wouldn’t mind it so much if they’d do it while I was watching out the window, but they’re so wary that I usually miss all the fun.

In winter, gray jays look like enormous chickadees, with fluffy gray plumage and a dark gray cap. Unlike the blue jay, they have no crest. But the newly hatched birds are uniformly dark gray all summer– so much so that two prominent early American ornithologists considered them to be a different species. It’s been said that they eat anything from soap to plug tobacco. In 1895, Charles Bendire, an officer in the United States Army in the west, wrote that one Indian told him gray jays eat moccasins, fur caps, matches, anything. In the wilderness, the sound of an ax or smoke from a campfire is sure to bring them in. They’re so tame in the western national parks that they often alight right on a person’s head or hand while begging for food. They gave early fur trappers a terrible time, audaciously sitting on sleds right by the trapper, destroying pelts as they ate through to the carcasses. They think nothing of going inside a tent and stealing the food–being jays, they are among the most intelligent of birds, and can match wits with the cleverest outdoorsmen.

But even for being nuisances, gray jays were liked by many of the early settlers. As one ornithologist, Arthur Cleveland Bent, put it: “Although cordially disliked by the trapper and the hunter, because it interferes with their interests, this much-maligned bird has its redeeming traits; it greets the camper, when he first pitches camp, with demonstrations of welcome, and shares his meals with him; it follows the trapper on his long trails through the dark and lonesome woods, where any companionship must be welcome; it may be a thief, and at times a nuisance, but its jovial company is worth more than the price of its board.”

(Recording of a gray jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”