For the Birds Radio Program: Gray Jay

Original Air Date: Jan. 8, 1993

Today we’re thinking about whiskey jacks.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Gray Jay)

One of the most endearing birds on the planet, and a close relative of our good old Blue Jay, is the Gray Jay. Here in Duluth, “whiskey jacks” are only seen during occasional winters, but in the true north woods they are welcome year-round neighbors of country people if not of woodland birds.

Like their rowdy cousin the Blue Jay, Gray Jays get protein in spring and summer by eating the eggs and young of other species. I’ve observed them for years up at Ely while teaching a summer Elderhostel, and warblers, vireos, and other little birds seem to get even more agitated about them than they do about Blue Jays. But there’s something wonderfully confiding about Gray Jays—the way they swoop in on silent wings to check out a stranger and then quickly fly in for a handout is especially endearing to me.

I got a letter quite a few years ago now from a northwoods friend who treasures her Gray Jays—she noted that her Gray Jays “are not as raucous as Blue Jays and they are much more trusting of human kind than their more brilliant cousins.” She says that “the stories about Gray Jay’s activities around campers are probably true. Whenever a sack of groceries appears and we are carrying things into our house they are immediately there for a close inspection. We have had them open food packages and even jump into our lunch box to pull apart a sandwich. Like Blue Jays they haul things away to tuck in a secret storage place.”

Apparently Gray Jays are much earlier nesters than their Blue relatives. My friend wrote that “Gathering of nest materials has been observed as early as February 20…(through) March 13—most often small twigs and lichen. Nest materials always are carried into bog areas and wet impenetrable tangles of various descriptions. The jays are actively courting as early as Feb. 25th although they always seem paired.”

She noted that “the Gray Jays always come to the feeder as a pair until the middle or latter part of March when they seem to be coming one at a time. We believe that they must have eggs with one adult therefore incubating. On very warm days they come together.”

In 1983 she succeeded in finding a nest. It was 15 feet high, close to the trunk of a small live healthy Balsam, on the edge of a black spruce bog with a mixed woods surrounding the bog, well away from roads and buildings. On April 10 she could actually hear the nestlings. But that year a late April storm hit, and on April 15 she found two frozen nestlings perched near the nest, and only one survivor, still in the nest. Three days later the survivor was hopping about in good condition, and on May 22 could still be seen with its parents.

Although Gray Jays seem to always be found in pairs, or family groups during the spring and summer, she had one group of three adults that she wrote “seem to be some kind of permanent grouping. In 1987 the three were together at the feeders. During the nesting season it was hard to tell what was going on. Finally on May 9th the three adults came through our yard with three young begging for food. We’ve seen the group of three again this year.” Some species of jays do develop nesting systems which include unmated helpers, and it’s an interesting possibility that Gray Jays may sometimes do this too.

It’s always fun to list birds, but the most enriching part of bird-watching is observing how birds live. Note-keeping is a good way to remember, and share, your observations. And pulling out old notes and old letters gives those treasured observations a new life.

(Recording of a Gray Jay)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”