By Denny Olson
Some of us have been lucky enough to have a “Whiskey Jack,” “Camp Robber,” Canada Jay, sit on our hand (or head, in my case) and calmly nab a seed or peanut. After watching them forage for years, flying lightly from low perch to low perch, I’m convinced that they are less “curious” about us than calculatingly efficient. They have a Corvid (Crow/Jay family) brain, after all, and their kin have been the uncontested “Mensa” club of the bird world for years. They know danger, and lack thereof, when they see it. And, they have had thousands of years of practice being cute and endearing. More on that later.
Perisoreus canadensis bicolor, the subspecies in Montana, has very little gray on its nape compared to Eastern birds. It is gray above, white below, almost a foot long, and fluffy.
The adult male begins the nest construction near the trunk of a thick spruce or fir, often on the south-facing edge of a copse of trees. His life-long mate joins in for the interior finish work. The juvenile fledglings are a beautiful, uniform, dark charcoal color, and seem to magically appear in May with their parents. The nesting season begins in early March, and the adult pair keep very secretive and unusually quiet until the young are fledged. By the time most migrants arrive, Gray jays are mostly done with their nesting. Since they eat almost anything (including nestlings of other species), teaching young to forage in May and June seems a logical adaptation. Nights can dip below zero during their nesting season in boreal and subalpine areas. Hence their plush-toy fluffiness for temperature regulation.
They also have to eat a lot, averaging around 50 calories every day, and probably twice that during the depth of winter. They eat seeds, nuts, berries, carrion, bugs, spiders, blood-filled ticks, baby birds and bats. But in the winter, they mostly raid the pantry.
Like their cousins the Clark’s nutcrackers, they are hoarders extraordinaire. Food gathered in the summer (thousands of items per day) is temporarily stored in their chipmunk-cheek “gular pouches,” and coated with an efficient glue / saliva while there. Handy hideaways are selected on tree trunks and lower branches, e.g. behind large flakes of bark, and food is glued in place for the winter. The requirements of “putting up food” demand that a second nesting attempt – whether the first was successful or not, just doesn’t happen. The Gray jay “larder” is spread over a quite large area, and, like their nutcracker cousins, an almost mystical memory is required to efficiently find the tens of thousands of stores next winter. Some unfortunate graduate students have been fodder for experiments in seed retrieval – testing the comparative memories of the Corvids and our best and brightest humans. While the birds’ retrieval rate is around 80% (of thousands), the students could only remember 20% (of hundreds). Of course, the students’ lives didn’t depend on finding the seeds, and only the most diabolical professor would design an experiment that way. Even so, the jays’ “bird-brain” memories are nearly beyond belief.
Untested, but widely anecdotal evidence that Gray jays have an ability to place their seeds just above the maximum snow levels for the coming winter may usher them into the world of the paranormal. Farmer’s Almanac, eat your heart out …
If you are observant while out on snowshoes or skis this winter, you’ll notice that, for Gray jays, three is not a crowd. In fact, three birds traveling and foraging together is the norm. Here’s the “cute and endearing” explanation for that. When the fledglings are about 55 days old, like a lot of siblings I know, they begin to fight a lot. At the same time, the eventual dominant winner, usually a larger male, “sucks up” to Mom and Dad (aren’t I cute and endearing — or perhaps just whinier), and eventually goads them into letting that single fledge “stay at home” for the winter (you know, that 40-year-old uncle who still lives with mom …). The adult pair provides experience and protection, but the “stayer” is expected to help with food storage and also feed next year’s chicks – only after they have fledged. The adults likely don’t want the nest location compromised by having three adults, one inexperienced, flying in and out regularly.
So what happens to the “leavers”? They fly off and seek unsuccessful pairs of jays, and (undoubtedly looking cute and endearing) convince them to adopt. They then also forage as a threesome. Here’s another way Gray jays are evolutionarily intrepid. The unsuccessful nesters unwittingly pass on the genes of the successful nesters, giving the Gray jay an accelerated rate of natural selection! Although it may not seem so, the 50% survival rate of the “stayers” and the 20% survival rate of the “leavers” is quite high according to Nature’s math in the harsh boreal forest.
Next time you are surrounded by a group of Gray jays floating from tree to tree, quietly chirping their foraging calls, just remember. Charming, indeed. Tough and intrepid, for sure. A perfect fit for the Flathead, I’d say.