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Animals I Have Known #7

Gray Jays
by Dan Hartman

Oct. 16, 2011

I was sitting on the couch yesterday when a gray jay appeared at the window behind me. He tapped on the glass, so I got a scrap of bread and tossed it to him. As I watched him stash the bread I got to thinking about how little we see jays these days. For years we always had a resident pair that would visit almost daily. Now seeing one is an occasion.
Thereís been new research published on gray jays recently by Dan Strickland. The more I read, the more fascinated I become.
The jays are in fact declining from their southern range due to global warming. It seems loss of certain kinds of trees required for food storage is their main problem. Gray jays are the only jay that stores its food in the bark of trees. More precisely coniferous trees. They secrete a sticky saliva that glues the food in place. The resin of the tree helps preserve their stash. If a jay uses the wrong type of tree its food will get moldy and spoil.
Gray jays mate for life. Nesting in late winter to early spring they can incubate eggs at minus thirty degrees. If their nest fails they do not re nest. By June when the young have been out of the nest for a few weeks the dominant fledgling chases away his siblings. The reason being the gathering and stashing of food is geared for three member families. The exiled youngsters are picked up by adult pairs whose nests were not productive.
The seemingly docile gray jay with the cheerful face that will take food from your hand isnít as innocent as it appears. Often when Iím photographing owls, I observe them getting mobbed by songbirds of the forest. But while chickadees, nuthatches, robins, nutcrackers and stellars jays dive bomb the owl, they always seem to pull up at the last second to avoid collision. Not the gray jay. He will actually strike the owl. If you unknowingly approach their nest site there is a good chance you get nicked on the head.
Excellent mimickers, they have led me through the forest while I was sure I was on the trail of a pygmy owl. But on the positive side, their mimicking of great gray owls chicks has alerted me of a nest in the area.
Mostly gray jays, or whiskey jacks, camp robbers and Canada jays as they are also called, are companions. Friendly birds that fly branch to branch as they parallel the forest trail you are traveling.

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Gray Jay

Jay In A Food Stashing Tree

Steller's Jay