Few birds are considered as intelligent as members of the crow family are, otherwise known as, collectively, corvids.
Few birds are considered as intelligent as members of the crow family are, otherwise known as, collectively, corvids. Among the most intelligent of the lot are crows and ravens, although, I’ll have to say, few, if any, can match the combination of both intelligence and friendliness as our own gray jay, also known as the Canada jay.
I’ve encountered gray jays in mostly boreal forests of the north and sometimes the aspen parklands of the extreme northwest part of the state throughout parts of Kittson County. I’ve also observed gray jays from one end of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the other, the Colorado Rockies, northwest Montana, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Manitoba and Ontario, and in other parts of Minnesota including Polk, Beltrami, Hubbard, Mahnomen, Clearwater, and Marshall counties.
As mentioned, gray jays are sometimes-called Canada jays (and by I suppose our Canadian neighbors!). The birds are related to blue jays and other jays, magpies, crows, and ravens and belong to the avian family Corvidae. About 9 ½ to 12 ½ inches in length, European trappers and loggers have also called the gray jay Whisky Jack and Camp Robber. To Native Americans, the bird was called Wis-ka-tjon. A bold and curious bird, the gray jay was well known in forest encampments as a thief; stealing food, tobacco, and other small objects whenever it could. The bird would even enter tents to explore and steal.
A gray bird with a dark nape, white throat and white forehead, few other birds resemble it. The Clark’s nutcracker of western America and the two species of shrikes are the only birds that I can think of that come close. Juvenile gray jays are a darker slate color all over and lack the white throat and forehead and lighter underparts of the adults.
Among its corvid relatives, however, there is something quite unique about the bird’s anatomy and habits. The gray jay possesses special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to “glue” foodstuffs together. This enables the bird to clump food together, like berries, nuts, insects, and other foods, and stick the bonded morsels onto branches, under tree-bark crevices, inside tree cavities, and the like. Their habit of caching food is instinctive, which helps the bird survive harsh winters. During lean times the bird can return to its many caches and feast on its globular creations.
I have had the privilege of having gray jays perched on my shoulders, head, and on my hands and arms while looking curiously into their eyes. These birds, gradually tamed by a friend of mine who owns a lakeside cabin in Ontario, are a joy to be around. My friend, who can mimic the vocalizations of the birds, will whistle various notes to inform the resident gray jays that he has arrived for another stay at the cabin.
The family group of jays that frequent my friend’s Canadian retreat are especially fond of bits of bread, but nearly anything offered will be accepted and carried off in a rush. A feeding technique that works particularly well is to hold tightly between a thumb and forefinger a chunk of bread at the end of an extended arm in efforts to force gray jays to perform a small amount of work in order to claim the food prize. It’s fascinating to observe—the bird, perched comfortably on a wrist or palm, will peck forcefully at the bits of bread until it’s successful at dislodging from one’s grip the bread and has completely stuffed its own beak full. And then, in haste, the bird flies quickly away to either consume the bread or cache it for a later meal.
Gray jays range throughout most of Alaska and Canada, through the Rockies and northern United States, including northern Minnesota. They tend to be permanent residents within their range, but do on years of short food supplies migrate to southern locales in periodic irruptions. Three years ago several gray jays spent the winter at the Sanctuary, apparently finding plenty to eat throughout their stay.
The birds nest while snow is still on the ground, usually in March, in stick nests that they build and line with feathers, fur, and plant down for warmth. Three to four eggs are laid and incubated by the female. Both parents take part in raising and feeding a hungry and demanding brood, which, once fledged, remain together as a family group.
The gray jay is a wonderful part of the Northland and has been a part of the North American landscape from as far back as 18,000 years ago. In fact, quoted from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, “Paleontologists have recovered the fragmented fossils of two gray jays from the late Pleistocene, along with other boreal birds and mammals, at a cave in central Tennessee, indicating a much colder climate at that time than now.”
It’s easy to imagine that clans of human hunters and gatherers of early North America befriended individual gray jays as pets. As well, it’s also quite possible that as a result of the gray jays’ boldness and relative comfort level of frequenting human encampments, sometime found themselves the hunted by opportunistic human hunters.
Nevertheless, gray jays now as then are gliding silently from treetop to treetop in search of food and other curiosities. Gray jays will, if he spots you, usually come for a closer look at you, and, once satisfied, will move on while calling softly to other jays nearby as it goes. And if you provide a gray jay with some food, it may even land next to you or sometimes on you as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from readers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.