For the Birds Radio Program: Gray Jays: Nike and Shoe

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 1995

If you haven’t already seen a Gray Jay this fall, be patient and keep your eyes open. According to Laura Erickson, this is the year they invade the north land. And two of them are very, very special birds. 4:02

Audio missing


1995 is shaping up to be the year of the Gray Jay. Everywhere I go, I see them, flying overhead at Hawk Ridge, picking at road-killed longspurs along Highway 61, winging past at the Lakewood Pumping Station, sitting on my ann in my writing room. I’ve had two in my house so far this fall–Nike, who injured her wing, and Shoe, who had a concussion and lost the vision in one eye–both hit by cars. Gray Jays are low, slow flyers, and being from the northern wilderness, they aren’t savvy in the ways of highway traffic, so they’re exceptionally vulnerable to cars.

The last time we had a Gray Jay invasion in the northland was about 9 years ago, when virtually everyone in Duluth or Superior with a suet feeder had two or three of them for the whole winter, and people further south in Wisconsin and Minnesota got to see them on and off way out of their normal range. They’ll eat rendered suet, but their favorite is big chunks of good old grocery¬≠ store suet, which they carry off to hide in tree crevices. Gray Jays eat much more meat than Blue Jays, and when they have more than they can eat in one sitting, they coat chunks with their unique, viscid saliva, making the morsels sticky enough to stick to branches and also probably serving as a food preservative so when the weather warms up, bacteria doesn’t grow on the meat. Gray Jays have the most well-developed salivary glands of any songbird, probably because their food is so prone to spoilage without it.

Gray Jays have a variety of calls, but we usually just hear a couple of different calls. More often than not, Gray Jays are absolutely silent when near people. It’s partly because they need to be quiet when following a hunting wolf or coyote–the predator doesn’t mind them tagging along and sharing a bit of the kill as long as the jays don’t scare away the prey. But in their family groups, they can make a lot of different whistles and funny sounds, and since Shoe pretty much accepted me as her emergency auxiliary back-up mommy, she made all these sounds to me.

Gray Jays are as delightful in the house as out–they like big mammals anyway, so they calm right down with people and are easy to care for. Nike and Shoe were so fun that I would have loved to keep either or both of them forever. But as they healed, they each started spending more time sitting by the window looking out than they did sitting on my arm, and I couldn’t help but notice when it was time to let them free. I let Nike out two weeks ago on Friday–it was a lovely, sunny day, and she spent the first ten minutes sitting on my ann, just looking all around. Suddenly she was ready, and flew into my apple tree. She studied the lay of the land, and suddenly flew across the yard to the big spruce. There were plenty of Gray Jays moving along Hawk Ridge that day, and I suspect she joined a group of them that afternoon, and I haven’t seen her since.

Shoe left three days later, on Monday. She was still blind in one eye–I’m not sure if the vision will clear, but she was much more comfortable than when she came, and had become adept at flying in the house with monocular vision. Sometimes I’m tempted to keep a bird beyond when it needs to stay, but these are wild creatures, and love their wildness as much as I love having them near me. As Nike and Shoe wing their way through life, I want them to remember me with as much fondness as I’ll always remember them, as a person who loved them enough to know when it was time to say good-by. If you see them around, remind them to be careful out there.