For the Birds Radio Program: Nike the Gray Jay

Original Air Date: Sept. 6, 1995

Sneakers the Blue Jay has a new friend named Nike. 3:46

Audio missing


Last week a woman I know was driving from Orr to Eveleth when she came upon an adult Gray Jay who had been hit by a car. Its head was bleeding, one wing was swollen, and it couldn’t fly. Its mate was nearby, apparently trying to lead it off the road, but it was too dazed. She brought it home, gave it some electrolytes to prevent shock, and kept it quiet and fed until she came to Duluth a couple of days later and brought it to me.

I’ve never held a Gray Jay before–well, not counting the friendly ones that have landed on my hand when I’ve been camping out west–but I’ve often taken care of their Blue Jay relatives.

Baby Blue Jays are easy–they’re so curious and interested in the world and hungry that they instantly make friends. That’s also the problem with baby jays–if you raise one alone, it invariably gets way too tame to be releasable. Usually it turns out okay if you have more than one, but my Blue Jay Sneakers refused to become wild despite her brothers and sisters who did. Anyway, if baby jays are easy to care for because of their tameness, adult Blue Jays absolutely hate captivity, and never tame at all. This keeps them under stress the whole time we have them until they can be released, and sometimes they reinjure themselves trying to escape.

So I was nervous about how a Gray Jay would adapt to captivity, but this one seems to be doing just fine. I’m guessing she’s a year old–she’s in adult plumage, but the inside of her mouth is still mostly red, which is most likely in young females. Since I already have a Blue Jay named Sneakers, I’m calling her Nike. She reinforces my theory that Gray Jays are really nothing more than chickadees on steroids, maybe a bit oversized, but fluffy, gentle and fun-spirited.

Gray Jays are by nature interested in large mammals. Unlike Blue Jays, who eat mostly plant material and don’t need to rely on any other species for help getting food, Gray Jays eat mostly animal matter. They instinctively know that if they follow large mammals, they’ll get food. If they follow a bear, sooner or later it’s going to rip open a log teeming with tasty grubs. If they follow a coyote or wolf, sooner or later it’s going to make a kill and they can sneak in for little morsels of fresh meat. If they follow one of those colorful two-legged mammals called a human, eventually it will take a big pack off its back, rip it open, and pull out a donut or something. And Gray Jays are by nature extremely sociable–you virtually never find one alone. Thanks to her inborn nature, Nike likes being around me–both for the company and because she already associated large creatures with food. She eats little when left alone in her enclosure, but pigs out when she’s sitting on my hand. She likes to sit in the crook of my arm while I type on the computer.

Of course, all the attention she requires makes Sneakers jealous. Sneakers is still utterly confused about her–Nike looks sort of safe, but is bigger and heavier, and Sneakers doesn’t quite trust her. When the two of them are together, Sneakers’ crest goes up and down, showing her ambivalence. I’m hopeful that Nike will mend soon, and Sneakers won’t have to share our office much longer, but meanwhile, Nike’s sure a fun bird to have around.