For the Birds Radio Program: Gray Jay

Original Air Date: Jan. 27, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about the friendliest bird of the north woods, the whiskey jack. 4:07

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One of the great pleasures of walking in the Northwoods in winter is meeting up with a family of Gray Jays. The most beautiful time to encounter them is in early morning when a winter frost hangs in the frozen air and hoarfrost clings to the trees. The jays fly in silently, like ghosts, shaking a dusting of snow as they alight in a tree. They’re fluffy, with soft gray plumage, a blackish nape and white cheeks, looking for all the world like chickadees on steroids. They’re also known as Canada Jays and Whiskey Jacks, but I think of them as Op Birds–exuding both opportunism and optimism as they study us with hunger and hope glowing in their dark eyes.

Gray Jays are related to Blue Jays, but nowhere near as raucous or brightly colored, thanks to their food requirements. Blue Jays eat mostly plant material–acorns and other seeds, and berries and fruits. Blue Jays occasionally steal eggs and baby birds, but overall they are more appreciated than hated by other birds because they’re such effective sentinels, warning the entire neighborhood about danger. So Blue Jays can afford to be conspicuous. Gray Jays skulk through the woods pretty much silently and are cryptically colored because they eat mostly animal material–especially birds and eggs. They can’t afford to advertise their presence with fancy plumage or shouting or they’ll scare their own prey away. They go through life quietly and even sneakily at least as far as other birds go.

So why are Gray Jays so friendly to humans? Again it’s because of the meat they crave. Gray Jays are too little and weak to kill rabbits or other medium-sized mammals, but they have noticed that large predators like wolves and bears have an easy time killing meaty creatures, and over millennia discovered that following large predators often leads to tasty rewards, as long as they avoid being eaten themselves as they share the feast. Tagging along with large predators is especially worthwhile in winter, because frozen carcasses are too hard for their wimpy beaks to penetrate. They leave it to the mammalian predators to rip into a dead animal, and then they fly in to snatch small, easy to eat scraps. Gray Jays have extraordinarily well-developed salivary glands. They gather more food than they can eat and coat it with saliva before stashing it away in secret caches–the saliva serves as a preservative.

It turns out that following backpack-bearing humans is even more rewarding than following other large predators, because people with backpacks don’t even need to hunt and kill to have food on hand. And, perhaps oddly from a Gray Jay’s perspective, humans often offer food with no strings attached, just to be sociable. The sociability seems mutual–when a group of Gray Jays follows us through the woods for many long minutes, we can’t help but think there’s an element of genuine friendliness involved.

Gray Jays stay in their family units through the long winter, and last year’s babies may stay with their parents for many more months, helping them raise this summer’s new batch of babies. This gives them the experience they’ll need when they get around to raising babies of their own. Gray Jays live in a harsh environment, and sneaking around searching for bird nests takes a lot of practice. Parents have plenty of time to show their young the ins and outs of survival in the North Woods–and tricks like opening backpacks and stealing food from picnic tables and Coleman stoves. We don’t mind at all–their company is well worth the cost.