By Linda DeKort

One of the common birds we will be studying carefully in the results of our Christmas Bird Count is the Gray Jay. As its name implies, the Gray Jay is muted in body color but is quite distinguishable with its striking pattern of black and white on its head and its short, black bill. The thick fluffy plumage gives it a soft rounded look; this appealing appearance allows us to be more forgiving as the Gray Jay, also known as Camp Robber, makes off with a few morsels of our picnic. Of course, the thick plumage also helps to keep it warm on long winter nights or during cold snaps when the temperature may plummet to 40 below zero.Gray Jays are permanent residents throughout Canada, Alaska and our western mountains. Because they stay in one place and do not have to face the perils of long annual migrations, they often live for a very long time. These robin-sized birds have an average lifespan of about 8 years and some may reach the age of 15 or 16 years!

Gray Jays breed as early as February and sit on nests which are surrounded by snow. Each clutch consists of three or four pale green speckled eggs. The Gray Jays manage to have enough energy to breed and brood and raise their young in the cold of winter because of their habit of hoarding. Over the summer and fall, each bird collects as much as 50 pounds of food. Their food includes insects, berries, mushrooms and even bits of flesh gleaned from carcasses. They prefer perishable foods and count on nature’s refrigerator to keep them from rotting. Each item gets coated with the bird’s sticky saliva and is fastened high in the trees.

Kate Webbink of University of Nebraska reports, “Gray Jays rely on the cold fall weather in the mountains to preserve their food caches. Not only is that food valuable to the birds who stored it, but it is also vital to their chicks, which hatch weeks before any new berries bloom or insects swarm on the freezing mountainsides.

However, global climate change is warming those mountainsides, and resident species are facing serious problems. For Gray Jays, a rapid shift in seasonal patterns means finely tuned foraging and breeding behavior will be out of sync with the alpine forests. A warmer fall can rot food stored for the winter, and worse yet, a late winter can wipe out survival odds for Gray Jay chicks. Gray Jays have been studied extensively in Eastern Canada at latitude similar to Montana.

Twenty years ago, these forests were dense with jay territories, each occupied by a stable, experienced breeding pair along with mature chicks from earlier broods who stayed home for a few years to help their parents raise generations of nestlings. Today, their population has dropped by half and their territories appear to have decreased in quality, with the occupants mostly younger jay couples with low nesting success.”

We will be keeping a close watch on the population of these fluffy birds here in the Flathead.