Gray Jay – Perisoreus canadensis

Gray Jay in forest habitat

The Gray Jay ranges from east to west across the northern boreal forests of America. They are popularly known as “camp robbers” and may even fly onto peoples hands or heads for food.

Description and Family

Gray Jay is unique in appearance, relative to the other crow, jay, and magpie members of the Corvidae family. The most notable difference is its small black bill which leads to it sometimes being described as looking like an oversized chickadee.

Gray Jay is a medium sized, fluffy, pale gray jay with a light underside and no crest. All races have black eyes, feet, legs, and bill. In North America there are three readily distinguishable populations of Gray Jay. The photos here show the Rocky Mountain version or color pattern. Pacific birds have a darker head and brownish tinged backs. Taiga (northern) populations are grayer above and have a slight grayish belly. 11 defined races are distributed among these three color morphs.

In North America there are 17 typical or breading members in the Corvidae family. Gray Jay is however the only member of the Perisoreus genus that is present here. Two other members of this genus exist worldwide: The Sichuan Jay which is endemic to China and the Siberian Jay which is found across northern Eurasia. All three members of the genus live year round on permanent territories, in coniferous forests, and store reserves of food for the winter.

Gray Jay scoutng for food

The Gray Jay is also known as “whiskey jack” because of his mischievous character.

Character, Diet and Foraging.

Gray Jays are known to be fairly intelligent and extremely tame around people. They are popularly known as “Camp robbers” because of their propensity to steal food at people’s camp sites, even right off their plates. Sometimes they will even fly up to and land on a person’s hands or head for a handout. Their “robber” habits further extend to the other birds, other Gray Jays, and various larger wildlife. The diet of the Gray Jay is exceptionally tolerant to a variety of foods. Their primary diet is made up of arthropods, berries, carrion, seeds, fungi, and fruits such as chokecherry. They also commonly raid the nests of other birds or bats for nestlings, snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates or amphibians, kill small mammals, and will even pursue small birds like chickadees and warblers. They have been known to land on larger animals to eat blood gorged ticks, and steal game from traps. Their deceptively cute appearance is balanced with an extremely intrepid behavior. These antics have also earned the Gray Jay the name of whiskey jack, the notorious lumber raftsman of 19th century folklore legend.

Collected food, when not immediately eaten, is stored for later consumption during the long winter when food is scarce or not available. Gray Jays cash large quantities of food by rolling their food in their mouth into a rounded mass (bolus) and coat it with a sticky saliva. They then stick this food mass into bark crevices and onto tree branches. As many as 1000 of these caches have been observed to have been created in a single day.  The genus name Perisoreus is appropriately defined as meaning hoarder with its etymology derived from the ancient Greek word perisōreúō, “I heap up all around”.

Gray Jay range map

The Gray Jay’s range stretches across the boreal forests of North America.

Range and habitat

Gray Jays mostly live in the northern boreal and subalpineforests. 80 percent of the population is found in Canada and 20 percent in the US. Their east-west range stretches from Alaska in the west to Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Their range also extends southward into the US along the Rocky Mountains, down the west coast to California, and in the northern Midwest and north-eastern states. In general they live strictly in remote forests and although not seemingly bothered by humans, once an area becomes a permanent settlement, as in a town being built, the Gray Jays move out and deeper into their forested habitat.

Gray Jay on post

This Gray Jay was seemingly not bothered being approached by people as he sat on his post in the sunlight at over 10,000 feet in elevation.

Breeding and nesting

Gray Jay breeds very early in the season, February and March, when temperatures may fall below -20 ° F. In fact, many of the other migrating birds have not even arrived much less started mating when the Gray Jays have already begun nesting in March and April. At this time of year inclement weather and storms are still very possible. Females on nests may even be seen partially buried in snow after a storm. Gray Jays will not breed more than once in a single season even in the event of a nest failure.

Usually Gray Jays breed in their second year of life. They typically mate for life except in the case where one of the pair dies. In this case the surviving member will find another mate. Interestingly, Gray Jays breed as a cooperative effort most often with a third member serving as a “helper” in feeding of the young after fledging and defending the breeding pair’s territory. The third “helper” member also assists in guarding the nest by mobbing potential predators. This third member is most often the dominant sibling of the previous season.

Nests are built in mature coniferous trees. The nest is constructed close to the tree trunk by both adults using twigs, strips of bark and lichen. It is held together with caterpillar webbing, and lined with feathers or fur. A rough base construction is started by the male and the female progressively becomes more involved as the nest evolves.

Young

Juvenile Gray Jays have a sooty gray plumage. In the beginning, after fledging, the young stick together as a family group. This cohesive group of siblings move through the forest together and will be seen huddling together to keep warm in cold weather. At about five weeks out of the nest though they will begin to fight amongst each other until a dominant juvenile expels the rest of his siblings out of the natal territory. The dominant juvenile remains with his parents on the natal territory into the following winter. This juvenile is often referred to as the “stayer” and his expelled siblings as the “leavers”.

The young Gray Jay leavers will attempt to find an unattached breeding pair to team up will as their helper member. In reality most of these juveniles are unsuccessful and studies show that about 85% of them will die by fall. Differing from this, about 50% of the stayers remaining with their parents will survive.

Life span

Gray Jays are fairly long-lived song birds. Mortality is relatively high during the juvenile period but assuming their survival into becoming a mated pair, females have been known to reach the age of 16 years old. The longest known male Gray Jay was 14 years old.

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About Dan Lockshaw

Dan is the owner and president of Optics4Birding. An avid nature lover and traveler he has ventured into some of the most remote regions on the planet. As author of the Owling.com website he has spent years promoting the conservation of nature. In contrast he comes from a long career as a senior Program/Mfg engineer in Aerospace design and development.