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Gray Jay


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.

Keys to identification Help

Crows and Jays
Crows and Jays
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Gray Jays are stocky, fairly large songbirds with short, stout bills. They have round heads and long tails, with broad, rounded wings.

  • Color Pattern

    Gray Jays are dark gray above and light gray below, with black on the back of the head forming a partial hood. Juveniles are grayish black overall, and usually show a pale gape at the base of the bill.

  • Behavior

    Gray Jays are typically in small groups. They fly in quiet swoops, generally holding their wings below the horizontal. While they have a large variety of vocalizations including hoots and chatters, they are less noisy overall than other jays. Gray Jays have very broad diets, eating anything from berries to carrion to handouts from hikers.

  • Habitat

    Gray Jays live in evergreen (especially spruce) and mixed evergreen-deciduous forest across the boreal forest of the northern United States and Canada, as well as in high mountain ranges of the West.

Range Map Help

Gray Jay Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult (Rocky Mountains)

    Gray Jay

    Adult (Rocky Mountains)
    • Fluffy, long-tailed jay with stubby bill
    • Rocky Mountains birds show mostly white head with some black near nape
    • Pale gray belly, darker wings
    • © Scott A. Haber, Rocky Mountains NP, Colorado, August 2007
  • Juvenile

    Gray Jay

  • Adult

    Gray Jay

  • Adult

    Gray Jay

    • © Ron Kube, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, September 2010

Similar Species

Clark's Nutcrackers have longer, spike-like bills and shorter tails than Gray Jays. They also differ from Gray Jays in having black wings and showing white in the wings and tail in flight. Steller’s Jays can overlap in habitat with Gray Jays and their calls are similar, but Steller’s Jays have blackish heads and blue bodies. At a distance, young and female Pine Grosbeaks can be confused with Gray Jays as they perch atop spruce trees, but Pine Grosbeaks are smaller, with small heads and greenish or reddish plumage.

Regional Differences

Gray Jays in the Rocky Mountains are paler overall; those across the boreal forest show more contrast between the dark head and pale face and underparts. Individuals in coastal areas are darker overall, especially on the head.

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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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.



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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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