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Image of gray jay.

The Convivial, Confounding Camp Robber

Cheerful, yet scheming. Companionable to campers,
yet ruthless toward its fellow siblings. Gray jays are rotund
little bundles of contradictions. But biologists know one thing for
sure—gray jays are among the smartest birds anywhere.

by Gustave Axelson

At 29 below zero, the air wasn't merely cold. It was caustic. So cold my lungs hurt to breathe. So cold my eyes watered and my tears instantly, painfully, froze to my cheeks. So cold the birches and aspens were popping like rifle reports.

Onto this desolate, frigid scene floated a gray jay, swooping a graceful arc to alight atop the single, spindly tine of a spruce top. The gentle jay looked like a snowbird sprinkled with charcoal dust. It looked at me, cocked its head, and whistled a few soft notes, which wafted like snowflakes down to my frozen ears.

Video of Isabella Christmas bird count. This video requires the latest version of Adobe Flash Player

A gray jay sunbathes at –29F.

I removed my winter mitts, breathed into my hands to restore feeling to my fingers, and etched a mark in my notebook: one more gray jay tallied for the 2010 Isabella Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

My counting partner, Larry Ronning of Two Harbors, has manned this territory in central Lake County for the Isabella CBC every year since 1982. He participated in the all-time high North American count of gray jays for an Audubon Christmas Bird Count (154 in 1986). And he said two things are certain when you go counting birds in Isabella around New Year's Day: "It's gonna be darn cold, and you're gonna see whiskey jacks."

The fact that gray jays thrive in the cold clutches of an Isabella winter is testament to the many ways whiskey jacks flip conventional bird wisdom on its head. Whereas many birds suffer a spike in mortality during the snowy season, adult gray jays enjoy winter survival rates over 80 percent. Indeed, in the deepest, frozen throes of a boreal winter in late February, gray jays begin the energy-burning extravagant act of nesting—a full three months before most northern birds begin breeding. Such non sequiturs intrigue bird biologists, some of whom have devoted their professional lives to studying gray jays, revealing still more contradictions and confusing behaviors.

"At first glance, a lot of what gray jays do doesn't make any sense," says Thomas Nicholls, a retired wildlife biologist from the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in St. Paul. He has studied whiskey jacks for three decades. "But what ties [all their behaviors] together is their high intelligence. They've ingeniously figured out a way to be long-lived birds in an extreme winter climate."

Companions or Robbers?

Many Minnesotans have made the acquaintance of gray jays by pitching a tent in the north woods. The bird's street smarts are quickly evident in its warm greetings to campers and its keen timing in snatching food like a pickpocket making off with a watch.

Video of Isabella Christmas bird count. This video requires the latest version of Adobe Flash Player

A gray jay flies to the top of a spruce.

Ornithologists Walter Taylor and William Shaw wrote of a gray jay encounter in 1927: "In a moment, perchance, a wisp of gray smoke seems to float into camp, and there is the saucy whiskey jack, very quiet now, perched on a branch … not 6 feet from where you are sitting. Cocking his bright eye at you in a knowing manner, he scans you with much circumspection. Then down he drops … right onto the table, and before you know it has seized a piece of butter from a plate at arm's length and made off with it!"

Because people so frequently interacted with gray jays, particularly at logging camps and hunting cabins, Perisoreus Canadensis earned a number of nicknames. T.S. Roberts' The Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932, listed seven names for the bird it called the Canada jay, aka moose bird, carrion bird, meat hawk, camp robber, whiskey john, and whiskey jack. Timber jay has been another sobriquet for this bird known to be attracted by the sound of human voices in the woods. Roberts called gray jays "a welcome companion amid the deserted and desolate surroundings of a northern forest in midwinter."

Wilderness Bird.

Though gray jays appear to be people-friendly, they are not found in urban areas. "Gray jays are companionable to humans in the woods, but they are a bird of remote forests," says Nicholls. "They are a great indicator of forest health."

In Minnesota, gray jays favor mature, lowland black spruce and tamarack stands. Gray jay pairs, which mate for life, retreat to these bogs to nest in late winter, when the average daily low temperature in Isabella still dips below zero and average snow depth in the woods is about 2 feet. The birds build a nest on a branch close to the trunk of a tree. To protect their eggs and young from cold, they construct thick walls of twigs lined with feathers (mostly from grouse), moose hair, lichens, and strips of bark.

Video of Isabella Christmas bird count. This video requires the latest version of Adobe Flash Player

Cold day for birding at the 2010 Isabella CBC.

The female lays two to five eggs and spends most of the next 18 days incubating on her nest, save for the occasional break to turn the eggs or stand and shake snow off her back. Eggs hatch around late March or early April, and the young gray jays fledge from late April to early May.

Given that most north woods birds nest later in spring, when natural foods are abundant, the gray jay's ultra-early nesting period seems odd. Canadian researcher Dan Strickland has studied gray jay nesting in Algonquin Provincial Park since 1967, and he says gray jays nest early to buy the parents more time in spring and summer for putting up food for winter—and to give juveniles a head start on their tumultuous first year of life, which includes a pitched fight among brothers and sisters.

Death Sentence for Siblings.

Young gray jays fledge as adult-sized, dark gray birds. The juveniles closely shadow their parents through the woods. For a little over a month, the gray jay family travels as a clan: mom and dad and up to four children. Then family life takes an ugly turn.

Strickland was the first researcher to discover the nasty intrabrood battle that erupts among young gray jays. On a June day in the late 1960s, he observed a juvenile "mercilessly chasing" its siblings through the forest. "This kept up until one day, only that one juvenile was left with mom and dad," he says. Throughout all this sibling fighting, the parent birds showed complete indifference, says Strickland: They just let the kids duke it out.

Further study by Strickland, published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology in 1991, revealed that indeed the weaker birds are driven from their parents' territory. About 80 percent of ejected juveniles die before autumn. The surviving displaced birds gain acceptance from an adult gray jay pair with no young of their own. The dominant juvenile continues to live with its parents through its first summer, fall, winter, and into the next spring—sometimes even helping to feed the following year's fledglings before it disperses to find a mate.

And so Strickland was left with a puzzler: Why the need for the intrabrood hostilities? Many bird species exhibit fratricide as hatchlings jockey for position in the nest. But why, after fledging, would a juvenile gray jay act so savagely toward its fellow siblings? Then Strickland studied the intricacies of how gray jays cache food, and he discovered the internecine struggle may be a food fight.

Caching Is Key.

Gray jays are hoarders, that is, they stash food to eat later. Campers in the north woods can see this behavior firsthand. When an offering of bread is made to gray jays, they do not sit and eat but rather make several trips to carry their booty off into the woods.

A gray jay gathers berries, insects, mushrooms, carrion, or whatever else it can find to eat in the woods. Then the jay works the food bits in its mouth, coating them with sticky saliva from extraordinarily large glands in its mandibles. Thus the bird transforms food bits into boli, little white pellets with the consistency of suet, which the jay then hides under the flaky bark of a black spruce or a tuft of lichen.

Etymology of "whiskey jack"

image of gray jay

There are several theories about how the whiskey jack got its name, but many follow the same basic path. Algonquin Indians called the bird wisakajak or whiskachon, naming it after a mischievous forest spirit that liked to play tricks on people. Loggers heard the Indian word and started calling the bird whiskey jack or whiskey john.


Caching patterns

image of gray jay

Gray jays display intricate patterns in how they cache their food, another sign of the bird's high intelligence. Ohio State University researcher Thomas Waite conducted an experiment in Alaska in which he put out food for gray jays and watched where they hid their caches. Then he set out a second serving of food and observed that they transported food items to more distant cache sites.

The gray jays took much longer to complete their caching trips the second time, because they were traveling farther to disperse their caches. In effect, the gray jays were minimizing the risk of losing their caches. By spacing them out, they reduce the chances that an intruder might find and plunder their stored food. Algonquin Provincial Park researcher Dan Strickland further observed that an intruder will cause gray jays to reshuffle their caches. "When a blue jay shows up in an area where a gray jay is storing food, the gray jay will chase away the blue jay, then it will recache its food," Strickland says.

Gray jays in Minnesota begin caching food in late summer to build up a food supply for winter. One study showed that gray jays can hide more than 1,000 caches in a single day.

The gray jay's high intelligence is evident in how they retrieve their food caches. Studies have ruled out random searching or sense of smell in cache recovery. Rather, it seems that gray jays actually remember just where they stashed their thousands of boli throughout the woods. Strickland's observations have supported this memory hypothesis. Whereas other birds such as chickadees devote most of the shorter winter days to foraging for food, Strickland says, "gray jays are surprisingly inactive in very cold weather, often spending long periods quietly sitting with fluffed-up plumage in sunny, sheltered locations.

"And, when they [are hungry], they often fly 10 or 20 meters to another tree, land, and immediately retrieve some [food] tidbit from under a piece of bark. Such apparently purposeful behavior suggests that they knew where the food was hidden all along."

For Strickland, this behavior was the final piece to decoding the gray jay's puzzling intrabrood fights. If retrieving food caches is like a game of memory and there are only enough caches in a territory for the parents plus one extra bird, then the dominant juvenile would do best by driving off its siblings, thereby gaining exclusive access to seeing where its parents cache food.

Caching appears to be the key to how gray jays survive a harsh northern winter and go on to live exceptionally long lives. While many migratory boreal birds have life expectancies of three to five years, Nicholls recorded several gray jays that lived six years or longer, with two birds living 17 years.

Winter Counts and Summer Surveys. Where gray jay populations are declining, the cause may be what's happening with their food caches.

In 2006, Strickland and Thomas Waite, a researcher at Ohio State University, published a paper in a British scientific journal that documented a 50 percent decline in the number of occupied gray jay territories in Algonquin Provincial Park since 1980. The study also found that gray jays were nesting later, laying fewer eggs, and producing fewer nestlings. Autumns in the park have been getting warmer, and nesting difficulties were most pronounced following the warmest autumns.

Strickland and Waite's hypothesis is that gray jay food caches are spoiling during warm autumn days. Without their full supply of food caches to get them through the winter, some birds are less nutritionally fit for the nesting season, they said.

Similar declines have been recorded in some local Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, the one-day bird surveys by citizen-scientists. Nicholls has been running a CBC in northern Wisconsin for 45 years, and he says his groups tallied an average of 13.3 gray jays annually from 1965 to 1994, compared with 6.5 birds annually since 1995. The Isabella CBC has also recorded a 50 percent decline in its rates of gray jays tallied per hour since 1983.

A summer breeding bird survey in Minnesota's national forests tells a different story. Gerald Niemi, a biology professor with the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has been leading a survey by trained observers to annually count birds in June and July in national forests across the western Great Lakes region since 1991. Niemi's numbers show the gray jay population increasing by about 6 percent annually in Superior National Forest over the past 15 years. In neighboring Chippewa National Forest, the gray jay population has increased by about 5 percent annually.

Jan Green, a northern Minnesota bird expert who sits on the NRRI's advisory council and is a former national Audubon board member, says the differing study results aren't surprising. "I think [the Audubon and NRRI studies] may be looking at different parts of the elephant," she says, referring to the CBC's winter timing and breeding bird survey's summer timing. "Gray jay populations can be variable and difficult to explain because we are witnessing both breeding populations and winter visitants, sometimes with irruptions from Canada down the North Shore."

Nicholls notes that the International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks gray jays as a species of least concern. "There are certainly other birds in worse shape," he says. "But something subtle is happening, enough to put up a red flag about some of the local declines. "I hope it doesn't turn from a local to a regional to a broader trend. This could be the early warning signal."

Bird of the Black Spruce.

Both the Audubon and NRRI counts underscore the gray jay's reliance on boreal, boggy habitat in Minnesota.

"There is no question [gray jays] are primarily breeding, and in other seasons, using mature, lowland coniferous forest dominated by black spruce and tamarack," Niemi says. "Lowland conifers are critical to the species."

It was in just such a spruce bog where Larry Ronning and I spotted our seventh, and last, gray jay of the 2010 Isabella CBC. There it sat sanguinely among snow-burdened evergreen boughs—fluffed up and plump, casually looking at me, then looking away. Not many birds can afford to spend the day sunbathing at 29 below zero.

Then again, not many birds are as smart as the gray jay.

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