Gray Jays are one of the wildlife “specialities” of Voyageur Country. These Jays seem to be very common to us, but they really only occur in the northern heavily wooded areas of the U.S. and Canada, and those woods have to have a strong coniferous, or evergreen, component. Folks from around the country travel to our area to add Gray Jays to their life lists.
This year there seems to be an abundance of all-gray birds hanging out with Gray Jays. They are the juveniles! Young Gray Jays are a beautiful slate gray color and their beaks almost have a bluish cast to them. When the young ones are this age, they are pretty naive. They are curious and aren’t afraid of anything. It’s easy to observe them up close. The adult birds try to keep them under wraps, but that isn’t always easy to do with a hungry youngin’. The juvenile Gray Jay makes a clacking noise with their beak when they are begging.
I’ve been finding juvenile Gray Jays all over the place this year; on the Echo Trail, the Elephant Lake Road, and all around the Crane Lake area. One neighbor has told me that he has a family of 5 visiting his feeders, 2 adults and 3 juveniles.
Gray Jays are very unique birds in that they start nesting in the dead of winter – in March. They spend the fall and winter caching food in preparation for feeding young chicks in March and April when there really isn’t much food to be found in the forest. They are masters at storing food under bark and in other hiding places and then remembering where they put the food. The cold winter temperatures keep the stored food from spoiling. Gray Jays are very intelligent birds and their nests are so well hidden that one must be very lucky to find one. They will try to lead you astray if by chance you are trying to find a nest; the bird will avoid going to the nesting area while they are being watched. Gray Jays are very good parents and the female will sit on the nest while the male feeds her.
This young Gray Jay just launched himself off the branch. They’re still a little clumsy at this age when flying.
Another 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 like suet. 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
- 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.