Gray jays at Algonquin: winter breeding phenom is underway

Get out your binoculars, cameras, smart phones and pack a baggie full of bread, cheese and raisins. The fascinating world of the winter Gray Jay breeding season is underway at Algonquin Park. And if you’re lucky (as most Gray Jan fans are), these delightfully social birds will feed right off your hand.

“Gray Jays are a fascinating bird,” says retired Algonquin Park naturalist Dan Strickland.  “They are very confiding and quickly learn that people can be a source of food and so they come to people, rather than the other way around. They are often tame and will land on your hands.”

“This visitor to Algonquin Park is delighted to have a wild Gray Jay calmly land on her video camera. Gray Jays in Algonquin are the subject of one of the world’s longest running field studies, part of which involves giving each bird a unique combination of coloured leg bands. These permit it to be individually recognized, even from a distance, as it goes about its business on its large year-round territory in patches of boreal forest.” CREDIT: Gord Belyea

Snow-covered nests at Algonquin

Yep even in -200 C weather these true Canadian snowbirds can be seen sitting in snow-covered trees, incubating their eggs. Their source of food?  Secret stashes of berries, fungi, bugs, meat and other foods they have stockpiled in trees (usually coniferous) during summer and fall.

Gray Jays have an uncanny ability to remember where they stashed their food and fly back and forth to retrieve it throughout the year.

“Finding food in the winter is not a problem for Gray Jays,” says Strickland.

Gray Jays declining

Sadly, there has been a 50 percent decline in Gray Jays at Algonquin Park over the past two decades and researchers are hard at work trying to figure out why. They suspect it could be climate change spoiling the quality and quantity of food these birds hoard from trees.

Strickland, along with ecologist Dr. Ryan Norris from the University of Guelph and his graduate students, are working on what has been described as “one of the longest-running studies of a marked population of vertebrates anywhere in the world”.

Long-time Algonquin Park naturalist Russ Rutter began the study in the 1960s. After Rutter passed away in the 1970s, Strickland took over and expanded the study as a recreational sideline to his job as Algonquin’s Chief Park Naturalist. Strickland continues the study in retirement and is still learning more about these very special birds.

“Records during the past 33 years show that more Gray Jay territories dominated by deciduous trees, such as sugar maple, have gone vacant than territories dominated by coniferous trees, particularly black spruce,” says the University of Guelph website.

Unique banding system

As part of the study, and to verify the hoarding tendencies of Gray Jays, Strickland uses an ingenious banding system to identify individual birds using colored bands in various combinations.  Previously, he also fed selected pairs of birds food dyed with a fecal marker. He then cut off the marked food and saw it begin to reappear in the feces of young birds.

“That proved the birds were eating food they had stored 40 days earlier and giving it to their babies,” says Strickland. “So [we know] they were certainly finding stored food although it still remains open as to just how much of it they recover. But most indications suggest that they do find this stored food and they do it by memory.”

Future solutions

As fascinating as the study is, there is a lot of work to be done to discover why Gray Jays are declining in Algonquin Park and to understand their often strange social behaviour. Good thing Strickland and the team of researchers love the work, and the birds, so much. The answers will hopefully continue to flow.

Want to know more about the Gray Jays study?

Contact the Visitor Centre at Algonquin Park for a list of birds that Strickland has banded using his multi-colored banding system to identify individual birds by name. Dan can be reached at Dan perisoreus1@gmail.com.