Wildlife in North America: Birds

The uncommonly lovely Common Loon – photo: k jurgens

In years to come I was to become intimately acquainted with the gray jays of the north, spending many hours studying them and, if truth be told, resenting the undeserved reputation that overly-imaginative travelers have bestowed upon them.

Certainly the gray jay, or Canada jay, is daring and even cheeky and is ever ready to accept a handout from man. Certainly he has an uncanny sense of timing, knowing just when food is being prepared or eaten. And certainly he will quickly lose all far and hop or fly right up to anybody willing to share with him.

But he is no camp robber and he does not “carry away anything that he can find,” as one respected journal says. Never have I known a whisky-jack “seize bacon right out of the frying pan,” as one book claims. To start with, the gray jay is highly intelligent and will not expose its delicate feathers to the heat of a fire or be stupid enough to burn its mouth with hot bacon. I do not doubt that if someone left a panful of food away form the fire and was not there to take care of it, a jay would quickly believe the pan and its contents was an offering, but I will not accept that the bird actually steals right from under the noses of campers.

Gray jays, admittedly, are mischievous and will take any food they can find. Sometimes they may pick up some inedible object in the believe that it will turn out to be digestible, but the bids are not, in my opinion, the pests that some “authorities” make them out to be.

Gray jays are hardy creatures and more prone than most other birds to store food for later consumption. Living for many months of the year at subzero temperatures and raising their young when the snow is still on the ground, these birds must feed continuously in order to stay alive.

Deep inside the shelter of a branchy evergreen, often as early as February, the jays construct a substantial cup of twigs, leaves, grass and mosses, lined with hair, feathers and fine grasses. The rim of the nest fits closely to the female’s body, trapping her heat and in this way maintaining the correct incubating temperature in spite of the cold weather. Usually three or four eggs are laid, though five is not unusual, and the chicks hatch after about eighteen days of incubation by the female.

The voice of the Gray Jay

At times, the gray jay will whistle shrilly, not unlike a red-shouldered hawk; on other occasions it may squawk, chirp and coo softly. But, when the mood strikes it, it can sing quite well, emitting a long, soft, flutelike song. The fluffy gray plumage and black cap, the absence of a crest, its large size and the northwoods habitat in which it lives, make the gray jay an easy bird to recognize, as well as an attractive companion in the northern wilderness.

Wildlife in North America: Birds (c) 1974 R.D. Lawrence ISBN 0 7181 1355 1

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