gray jay

Gray jays: the real early birds

Ontario Parks is recognizing iconic Canadian wildlife species this year to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. First up is the gray jay, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s pick for the official bird of Canada.

“The early bird gets the worm” usually makes us think of robins. But the real early bird isn’t Robin Red-Breast. It’s the gray jay, also known as the whiskeyjack or Canada jay.

Master of the “staycation”

This northern bird is no fair-weather feathered friend, flying to the sunny south for the winter. Like the blue jay, its better-known cousin, the gray jay is Canadian to the core. This fluffy black-capped bird weathers the snow and cold in the “true north, strong and free.”

gray jay
The gray jay fluffs up its feathers up in cold weather. They cover its legs and feet. Even its nostrils are covered with feathers.

In late February, when spring is still a groundhog’s promise away, the American robin begins dreaming of love. The gray jay is a step ahead. Most of them have already hooked up with the love of their life. Each happy couple has its own patch of land, a 150-hectare territory where they’ll live out their days.

Home, sweet home

As migrating robins are winging it northward, gray jays are already putting the final touches on a family-sized nest. It’s cozy and snug, lined with cocoons, and bits of fur and feathers.

They usually choose a sheltered spot on the sunny south side of an evergreen tree, to take advantage of solar heating, of course.

“We’re chill”

By the time migrating robins reach Southern Ontario in early March, the lovebirds up north are already sitting on three to five eggs. The chicks hatch in early April, when the northern forests are thigh-high in snow and the lakes are frozen. But the kids stay warm, even in snowstorms and 30-below temperatures, thanks to mom’s body heat and the well-insulated nest.

gray jay chicks
Gray Jays often live to age 10 (16 is the record at Algonquin).

The young’uns are fledged and flying by the first week of May. They’ve left the nest before most migratory birds even arrive home!

What’s for dinner?

There aren’t many worms to catch in frosty March and April. So what do these “early birds” live on? How do they feed their young?

Gray jays dine on insects, spiders, berries, mushrooms. Bits of meat stripped from a dead animal. Eggs or baby birds snatched from another bird’s nest. They’ll even pilfer human food, which has earned them the nickname “camp-robber.”

When they find a good food source, they collect as much of it as they can – way more than they could possibly eat!

Stick it in the fridge

Gray jays spend the late summer and fall stashing food for the winter. But isn’t stored in one central spot, like a hollow tree. These clever birds tuck a smidgeon of mushroom here, a tasty piece of carrion there, in nooks and crannies throughout their 150-hectare territory.

gray jay stash
The gray jay is commonly referred to as “whiskeyjack,” which comes from the Cree and Algonquin languages (Wìsakedjàk in Algonquin, Wihsakecahkw in Cree).

But first, they roll the food around in their mouths to coat it in their sticky saliva. They glue these sticky morsels behind flakes of bark, under lichen, between spruce needles, or in the fork of a tree. One bird can hide a thousand pieces of food a day.

Hide and seek

How do they find all those meals? Researchers think it’s by memory.

They’ve watched gray jays in winter. These birds don’t waste time hunting for food. They don’t sniff it out or stumble across it. They sit on a branch, and when hunger strikes, they go right to one of their hidden larders.

Bye-bye, birdie

Algonquin Provincial Park naturalists have monitored gray jays since the 1960s. It’s the longest-running bird study in the world.

gray jay researcher
This gray jay is being banded. Researchers take the bird’s measurements and attach a small plastic tag to its ankle so it can be identified in the future.

And they’ve noticed the park’s gray jay population is slowly shrinking.

Fewer than half of the gray jay territories identified in the 1970s are filled today. And the researchers think they know why: fridge failure.

No more deep freeze

Most gray jay food is perishable. Thanks to climate change, winters are getting warmer. The stashed food freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws. Is their food going bad?

Spruce Bog Trail winter
Spruce Bog Trail

Park naturalists have noticed that the birds seem to be abandoning the hardwood territories, and sticking with the boggy black spruce areas. Spruce bark may make a better fridge. Naturalists think it slows down decomposition. That’s good news for gray jay parents with several hungry mouths to feed.

Jay walking

Gray jays live in every Canadian province and territory. Though summer campers in Algonquin may never notice one, they’re hard to miss in the fall and winter.

We spotted this gray jay in Missinaibi Provincial Park.
We spotted this gray jay in Missinaibi Provincial Park, living within Canada’s vast boreal forest.

These charming winter ambassadors seek people out. Sharp-eyed and curious, they greet hikers and skiers and follow them along the trail.

Canary in the coal mine

Bird lovers may soon be disappointed. The gray jay is an indicator species—the canary in the coal mine—and Algonquin is at the southern edge of its range. If climate change continues, this friendly park favourite could disappear from Algonquin for good.

Learn more about the gray jays’ boreal forest habitat, or plan a trip to Algonquin or one of our northern parks to catch a glimpse yourself.