For the Birds Radio Program: Oldest Gray Jay!

Original Air Date: Feb. 4, 2003

Happy news: a Gray Jay caught repeatedly for 17 years is still alive!

Duration: 4′13″


I’ve been reading so much sad news lately, on the environmental front and now with the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew, that I feel as though my heart is weighted down with lead. But last week I got an e-mail with some genuinely happy news.

Tom Nicholls and Leanne Egeland, at the North Central Research Station in St.Paul, Minnesota, have been involved in a long-term study of Gray Jays, learning about their longevity and site fidelity, for the past 21 years. The original purpose of their study was to identify and monitor birds associated with the long-distance dispersal of lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe, at the Fraser Experimental Forest in Colorado. That’s where the two of them have banded and followed over 500 Gray Jays during the past two decades.

There is a very low probability that most banded birds will ever be found again. But Gray Jays tend to stay on the same territory year after year. One particular jay was trapped and banded by Nicholls and Egeland, along with the late Frank Hawksworth, on August 16, 1985, the year the jay was hatched. This individual was retrapped about 2 miles from where it was originally banded in 1998. It was caught again in 1999 and 2000, again in the same territory.

Then, on August 30, 2002, 17 years after it was originally banded, that particular Gray Jay was trapped once more, making it the oldest Gray Jay known to be living in the wild.

This Gray Jay has apparently spent its entire life on a territory about 2 miles away from its original banding location, which is close to its parents’ territory.

Surviving life in the wild in the Colorado mountains at 10,000 feet, where temperatures plummet to -30F in winter, takes courage and intelligence, along with a certain measure of luck Fortunately this jay has thus far been more successful at eluding predators and natural disasters than it has at eluding researchers and their nets.

Something deep inside me is cheered by the thought of that one bird surviving through so many extraordinary world events. This Gray Jay has lived through four presidential administrations, two tragic space shuttle explosions, at least 111 successful shuttle missions, a presidential impeachment trial, the Gulf War, and the horrific events of last September 11. During this bird’s lifetime the Soviet Union has collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down. Yet the bird has gone through its long life blissfully unaware of any of this. It is functionally illiterate, so has never picked up a newspaper or magazine.

This Gray Jay not only doesn’t get cable—it’s also never seen a network TV show, so has gone through its life without viewing “Dallas” or “Beavis and Butthead.” And imagine any Gray Jay taking interest in “Joe Millionaire”! This bird has never tried Botox or expensive face creams, never had liposuction or a tummy tuck, never gone on a diet, never dined at a fast food restaurant nor purchased organic food. Yet without thinking, much less worrying about it, this jay has maintained a normal weight over the years ranging from 65 to 73 grams (that is, just about 2 ½ ounces). Nicholls says that by all accounts, it remains in good condition despite its old age, and doesn’t look any grayer than when it was originally banded in 1985. Might that be because it has so successfully managed to steer clear of human foibles?

You can see a photo of this oldest known Gray Jay on my website, at Just click on the link to February radio programs.