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Gray Jay

Perisoreus canadensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The deceptively cute Gray Jay is one of the most intrepid birds in North America, living in northern forests year-round and rearing chicks in the dark of winter. Highly curious and always on the lookout for food, Gray Jays eat just about anything, from berries to small animals. They may even land on your hand to grab a raisin or peanut. During summer they hoard food in trees to sustain themselves through bleak winters.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Steller’s Jay or Blue Jay; larger than an American Robin.
Other Names
  • Canada Jay (English)
  • Mésangeai du Canada, Geai du Canada (French)

Cool Facts

  • The Gray Jay stores large quantities of food for later use. It uses sticky saliva to glue small food items to tree branches above the height of the eventual snow line. It may be this food storage behavior that allows the jay to live so far north throughout the winter.
  • The Gray Jay nests during late winter, incubating its eggs in temperatures that may drop below minus 20°F. Oddly, it does not attempt a second brood in the May–June breeding period used by other birds in boreal habitats, even though those warmer conditions would appear to be more favorable.
  • Paleontologists have recovered the fragmented fossils of two Gray Jays from the late Pleistocene (about 18,000 years ago), along with other boreal birds and mammals, at a cave in central Tennessee, indicating a much colder climate at that time than now.
  • The Gray Jay ranges across northern North America, and its close relative the Siberian Jay spans a similar swath of northern Eurasia. Together, they complete a ring around the Northern Hemisphere. The two species share the habit of using sticky saliva to attach food to crevices in trees.
  • A 2.5-ounce Gray Jay has to eat 47 calories (technically, kilocalories) per day, compared to a human’s daily diet of 2,000 kilocalories. Gray Jays take advantage of whatever food they can find. A Gray Jay was seen landing on the back of a live moose to eat blood-filled winter ticks. Another was observed tearing a baby bat away from its mother. Gray Jays may even attack injured larger animals.
  • The Gray Jay has incredibly thick, fluffy plumage that it puffs up in cold weather, enveloping its legs and feet. Even its nostrils are covered with feathers.
  • The oldest Gray Jay on record was at least 17 years, 2 months old. Banded in 1985, it was recaptured and re-released by a bird bander in Colorado in 2002.

Habitat


Forest

The Gray Jay makes its home in boreal and subalpine forests across northern North America, usually where black or white spruce trees are common. Other tree species often found in its habitat include aspen, white birch, balsam fir, sugar maple, lodgepole pine, jack pine, red spruce, Engelmann spruce, Sitka spruce, eastern white cedar, yellow cedar, alpine fir, amabilis fir, and mountain hemlock.

Food


Omnivore

Gray Jays eat arthropods, berries, carrion, nestling birds, and fungi. They learn quickly to recognize and look for human food, as well as take advantage of game that has been shot or trapped by hunters. When foraging, the Gray Jay scans its surroundings from a succession of perches, each a short flight apart from one another. It will snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds, and occasionally pursue small birds like chickadees and warblers. Unlike Blue Jays, which hammer with their bills on hard food, Gray Jays wrench off pieces by twisting and tugging. They store food year-round by producing special saliva from large glands and molding the food into a sticky blob, gluing it behind flakes of bark, under lichen, in conifer needles, or in tree forks. They seem to have a good success rate of remembering where they have stored food.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1–1.3 in
2.5–3.4 cm
Egg Width
0.7–0.9 in
1.8–2.4 cm
Incubation Period
18–19 days
Nestling Period
22–24 days
Egg Description
Smooth, pale greenish white or gray, flecked with dark olive to rusty dots.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed, pale bill with an egg tooth, and pale pink skin with sparse down feathers.
Nest Description

Both sexes do the same nest-building activities, but the male does most of the work during the early stages. He starts by making a loose ball of spruce and tamarack twigs and holding it together with cocoons from forest tent caterpillars. Then he and his mate add a donut of twigs above the ball, filling it in with finer twigs, bark strips, and lichens. They line the cup with feathers or fur and mold it by pressing their bodies inside of it. The female helps more and more throughout the 3-week process, and by the end she may be contributing more than the male. The finished nest is 4 to 6 inches high, with a cup about 2 inches deep and 3 inches across.

Nest Placement

Tree

The male chooses the site after perching and looking around in several suitable spots. He picks a site at low to moderate height, often choosing a tree close to the south-facing edge of a forest patch to take advantage of the extra warmth from sunlight.

Behavior


Ground Forager

The Gray Jay usually flies slowly, gliding with its wings angled downward, but it is capable of fast, maneuverable flight when escaping a predator or disputing territory with another jay. Gray Jays roost close to the trunk of a full-bodied spruce, balsam fir, or other conifer tree, and often sunbathe on wind-protected perches. They stay with their mates as long as both birds are alive, and the members of a territorial pair rarely leave each other’s sides. The pair breeds in frigid conditions during February and March. In June, the biggest member of the brood kicks its siblings out of the parents’ territory, which it then uses as a safe haven until a nearby territory becomes available. The displaced siblings go looking for unrelated adult pairs whose own nests have failed, in the hopes of adopting their own safe havens. If a young bird is still hanging around the following year, the breeding pair prevents it from approaching the nest—but the young bird may help feed the new chicks once they fledge. Gray Jays use alarm calls, chattering, screaming, and mobbing when hawks, owls, or crows approach. They tend to be fearless of humans, particularly when human food is involved.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Gray Jays are common, but the majority live so far north that it’s hard to monitor their populations on a large scale. Between 1966 and 2010 populations appear to have been stable with possible a small decline, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 20 million with 20 percent in the U.S. and 80 percent in Canada. Rgus U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates an 8 out of 20 on the COntinental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. Gray Jays have begun to show lower breeding success in some southern parts of their range, possibly because higher fall temperatures cause their stored food items to spoil. As the climate continues to warm, Gray Jay populations will likely follow the shifting boreal forest itself, which is expected to shrink in its southern range and expand to the north. Gray Jays are curious birds and are often accidentally caught in mammal traps.

Credits

Range Map Help

Gray Jay Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Mainly resident (nonmigratory). In winter Gray Jays occasionally irrupt southward, appearing in fairly large numbers outside of their normal range.

Backyard Tips

Gray Jays visit feeders within their northern range, eating almost any kind of food (seeds, suet, etc.) offered on tube, platform, or ground feeders.

Find This Bird

The key to finding Gray Jays is to look at a range map and pay a visit to this bird’s northern or high-elevation boreal forests. After that, they’re likely to find you, as these curious birds investigate new sights and sounds in their territories. Look for them approaching quietly, making short flights from perch to perch or calling back and forth to each other.