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Gray Jay: ghost, robber, friend

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Photo by Michael Woodruff, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game Photo by Michael Woodruff, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game

a Bird in Hand

For many of our local folks winter brings an end to all outdoor activity, except shoveling snow of course.  Yes, as difficult as it is to believe, there are actually people around here—year-round residents, mind you—who do not participate in skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or any other snow-related activity. Not even ice-fishing! Their idea of a winter activity is simply surviving until spring. Thoughts of snow only generate silent curses and long, deliberate sighs. 

Hey, let’s not be too hard on these less-than-hardy folks. These poor people are already missing out on half of the fun for living in this wonderful part of the country. But their sentiments are shared by many of our fine feathered friends, too. Have you noticed how many birds are not outside your window right now? Most species have migrated south or west—weeks if not months ago. Those that remain are the toughest of the tough, the hardiest of the hardy, the most tenacious of the tenacious. You get my point. And the poster child for tough, hardy, and tenacious would have to be this month’s bird in hand, the Gray Jay. 

The Gray Jay is an unusual bird. A denizen of our forests, it takes to the snow like a duck to water. In fact, it even breeds and raises its young while the temperatures are still freezing and the snow is still flying. But this fact conjures up the question: how can the Gray Jay raise its brood when everything is covered in a mantel of white? Easy. It lives off of reserves. The Gray Jay does not spend its summer playing; instead, it is always busy getting ready for winter.  

The Gray Jay is an omnivore, meaning it likes both animal- and plant-based foods. Just like most people. It is an opportunistic feeder and will eat anything that comes its way, whether berries or bugs, seeds or carrion, or anything it can catch, be it furred or feathered. Any meal that does not need to be eaten fresh will be stored for later, and this is exactly what the Gray Jay does. The good Lord has given the Gray Jay an exceptionally sticky saliva, which the bird uses to “glue” food into hiding places for later consumption. As in months later. Food is slathered in slobber and then tucked away under shards of bark to be consumed at a later date. So much food is stocked away in this fashion that much of it is probably never used. But better safe than sorry. 

If you have ever encountered a Gray Jay in the forest, it had probably discovered you before you discovered it. They can be as silent as ghosts and seemingly appear out of nowhere. If they choose, they can be noisy and will make all the usual sounds of a jay, with a few odd bugling noises for good measure. But more often than not they are quiet little fellows. 

They are also thieves, hence their alternate name of camp robber. I have more than once been the victim of depredation by these sneaky little cusses. They will steal your dinner right off of your plate if you step too far away from it while camping. And they are bold. I have had them eat a snack right out of the palm of my hand. You can do this too, if you are patient and still. 

Like their cousins, the Gray Jay is an intelligent little animal. They are a little bigger than a blackbird, but have a much longer tail. They are mostly gray, especially the back and wings of the bird. Otherwise they are white, from the front of the head down to the belly and the undertail coverts. A distinctive field mark is the band of dark gray that sweeps up from the eyes and toward the back of the head and down to the top of the neck, but not touching the dark shoulders. This dark coloration sort of looks like a receding hairline, the “forehead” being white. The bill is black and surprisingly small for a jay. 

One last interesting note about the Gray Jay. The bird also has another name, though it is less commonly used in our area but one that most you may have encountered. Early settlers in our region sometimes called the bird whiskey jack, which was as close as they could come when pronouncing the name of the bird in the local Indian language. One more mystery solved for those familiar with a certain road in Ponderay. 

Gray Jay, Canada Jay, Camp Robber, or Whisky Jack—whatever you call it, this is one fun bird to share the woods with. And regardless of what time of the year you venture off the beaten path and into the forest, they’ll be there. Happy birding!

You can reach Mike at [email protected]

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, Gray Jay, A Bird in Hand, Michael Turnlund, Whiskey Jack, Canada Jay, Camp Robber

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