Bird of the north

A bird synonymous with high elevations (except the Sierras of California) or high latittudes (Canadian coniferous forest) — Gray Jays.  These diminutive cousins of our familiar Blue Jay can be found in spruce forests, or where jack or lodgepole pine are present. We found them at the southern limit of their range at Sax-Zim bog in north-central Minnesota, but they can also be found in northern Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of New England states in the U.S.

gray jay

With their small head, shortened beak, and dense body feathers, they are well adapted to the extreme cold of the northern coniferous forest.

gray jay

The beak is shaped more like a chisel, with a sharp pointed end that is handy for stuffing food items into crevices under bark.  This is a key strategy to their winter survival.

Gray Jays are food hoarders.  They stash excess food during the summer and fall into nooks and crevices of particular tree species, first lubricating it well with saliva and forming it into a ball and then stuffing it into place with their bill.  Either the saliva or substances in the tree bark must have anti-bacterial properties because these food caches do not deteriorate over time. That and the deep freeze of their winter habitat ensure that there is always food available all year, and especially during the winter when the usual nuts, berries, and other animal prey have disappeared.

gray jay

Gray Jays are attracted to feeders and other sources of free food in the winter, like this frozen deer carcass left there purposely to provide a source of fat and protein for local wildlife.

The birds here are probably happy to stock up on fat and protein, as they will start their breeding season in a month or two, well before winter temperatures and precipitation have moderated.  Gray Jays have been seen feeding their chicks at -20F!  That’a a tough bird — well-adapted anyway.

gray jay

Like other jays, Gray Jays are social breeders, utilizing the help of juveniles from the previous breeding season to help feed the current clutch of chicks.

10 thoughts on “Bird of the north

  1. We have Gray Jays here in the beautiful boreal forests of the Adirondack Mountains in NY. They become very tame and will eat right out of your hand! They love peanuts, raisins, etc. and will visit campground picnic tables in the summer. We never get tired of seeing them. Your photos show them off beautifully 🙂 .

    • What fun! I had read that one could “tame” these birds by offering hand-outs, and they certainly would be smarter to take advantage of free food than to flee from a hand-out during your harsh winters up there. I’ve heard that others have tamed chickadees to feed from their hands as well. You probably have lots of Boreal Chickadees too. I have yet to see one of those — even in northern Minnesota.

    • Thanks. Some birds just exude cuteness, and I think it must have something to do with that shortened facial profile that makes them somehow look more juvenile. Look around in your local spruce forest — I bet you’ll see one soon now that you know what to look for.

  2. Nice to see something on the Gray Jay. They are somewhat rare here in northernmost California, however I have had three visiting at my house the last couple weeks — showing themselves whenever I put suet in the suet feeder. Generally I have a large population of Stellar Jays. Some winters I have a small number of Gray Jays too. They are very elegant birds. The suet cake only lasts one day, with all the jays around.

    • Thanks for commenting, Loren. I didn’t know there were Gray Jays in northern Calufornia, but it makes sense with the coniferous forest there. I guess they can become quite tame around people, even eating from your hand. Very opportunistic birds!

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