Gray Jay

Bird of the Month: Gray Jay

By Andrew McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Gray Jay)

PC: Mick Thompson (Gray Jay)

Scientific Name: Perisoreus canadensis

Length 11.5 in

Wingspan 18 in

Weight 2.5 oz (70 g)

AOU Band code GRAJ

The Gray Jay is a tough resident of spruce and fir forests in high mountains where it remains throughout the year.

This fluffy gray and white jay with a round head is often quiet and may startle an observer as it appears suddenly on a nearby branch. It moves through the forest in short flights marked by silent gliding and steep descents when food is present. The Gray Jay is “well known for taking food from humans” (Strickland and Ouellet). These “camp robbers” are often seen foraging around campsites and picnic tables and will sometimes follow hikers.

Stores Food for Retrieval in Winter

Food storage in Gray Jays has been well-studied and researchers have found that these jays are omnivorous and will eat and store insects, spiders, berries, seeds, small rodents, birds’ eggs and carrion. To prepare food for storage they roll the item in their mouth coating it with their sticky saliva and then stick it in the crotch of a tree, under bark or lichen, or in coniferous foliage (Strickland and Ouellet).

One study has shown that the Gray Jay behaves like a scatterhoarder and will cache food close to the food source, and will also distribute food in smaller amounts to caches farther from the source. Recovery of food from the caches has been monitored and use of memory to recall placement of a cache is implied by the little time the birds spend on foraging in winter (Strickland and Ouellet).

Adaptive Late Winter Breeding

Breeding begins in February across most of this jay’s range. Researchers have hypothesized that the schedule of early breeding is adaptive for Gray Jays because it provides more time in summer and fall for juveniles to learn how to cache food, and for adults to cache their own food in preparation for winter (Strickland and Ouellet). 

Mated pairs remain together through the year, and while the ground is still snow covered, they build a bulky nest fairly close to the ground and near the trunk of a conifer. Typically, 3-4 pale gray to greenish eggs are deposited. Young jays will leave the nest in about four weeks after hatching and will remain with the parents for another month (Kaufman).

Climate Warming Poses a Risk

Gray Jays may expand their range northward as the climate warms and the boreal forest shifts northward. There is some evidence that some conifer species at the southern edge of the Gray Jay’s range are retreating to the north and up the slopes of mountains (Strickland and Ouellet).

The Gray Jay shares the genus Perisoreus with two other species, the Siberian Jay (P. infaustus), which populates northern Eurasia, and the Sichuan Jay (P. internigrans) confined to the Tibetan Plateau. The genus name is from the Greek perisoreous, to heap up all around, with probable reference to the bird’s hoarding behavior. The Gray Jay’s species name canadensis refers to its range across northern North American including Alaska and Canada (Holloway).