Gray Jay

Canada jay 

The Gray Jay, Perisoreus canadensis, is one of my favorite birds. They are from the family Corvidae which include Jays, Magpies, Crows and Ravens. In the Old World the family includes the Rook. Corvids as a whole represent very intelligent birds.

Blue Jays and Gray Jays both cache food for later use and they have good memories and are able to find the stored food again. Both of the Jays that occur in our area have a special pouch in their throat where they can pack large amounts of food. Later they  find a good spot to hide it for future use. While Blue Jays use a hollow log or something similar for their lair of food, Gray Jays tuck their cache up behind the bark on trees. Tucking it up under bark will keep it safe from the elements like rain and snow.

While the Blue Jay just caches food for future reference, the Gray Jay saves the food for a very special purpose. They start building their nest and brooding young very early in the spring. They start laying eggs in late March and early April, when as you know, up in northern Minnesota we can have sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms. Gray Jays are very good parents and the female will sit on the nest while the male feeds her. Last spring I saw a JUVENILE GRAY JAY right out of the nest on May 7th. That says quite a lot as the ice on Crane Lake had just broken up. If you remember we had frequent snowstorms and cold temps all through April.

The other really interesting thing about Gray Jays is that after the nestlings are grown up and able to feed themselves, the dominant sibling will drive off their brothers and sisters to fend for themselves, while the dominant bird will remain with the parent birds. That is why you will most times see Gray Jays travelling in sets of 3 birds, very rarely will a flock include 4 or more birds. The orphan siblings will then go off on their own and maybe find some adoptive parents that didn’t nest to team up with.

Gray Jays can be very “tame” birds and they will hang out at campsites in the border country looking to steal food. They’re pretty much omnivorous which means they’ll eat anything. They seem to love white bread and they also love suet. You will sometimes see Gray Jays on the side of the road picking away at roadkill. During Deer hunting season they seem to know when a Deer has been taken down and will show up within minutes to find out if there are any scraps. At Nelson’s Resort, the Gray Jays have been offered various treats and they will even alight on your hand for a scrap of bread. We’ve found that they prefer white bread over wheat!

Thoughout history the Gray Jay has taken on several nicknames that I’ve tried to keep track of. One popular euphanism is Whiskey Jack or Whiskey John. That name is a rough corruption of the Ojibwa name for Gray Jay, wooeesketsan. Other names that this bird has gone by include:

  • Moose Bird
  • Carrion Bird
  • Meat Hawk
  • Camp Robber
  • Lumberjack
  • Timberjay
  • Canada Jay

Next time you’re out in the woods listen for their call. They have a great variety of calls and notes, and it has been said that if one hears a strange call in the north woods it is safe to attribute it to the Gray Jay.


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