Gray Jay by Alex Forsythe

by Alex Forsythe

We have bitterly cold temperatures and wind chills in our area, and I’m in the midst of final exams, so I’ve been trying to concentrate on happy, warm thoughts by looking back on our vacation out west. When I saw this Gray Jay, I was in warm sunshine without a care in the world. The bird seemed carefree, as well. Since then, as I’ve learned more about Gray Jays, I’ve come to realize that they are not carefree. They are tough survivors that made me realize that the cold and stress that I may encounter are nothing compared to what they encounter every year!

While you’re trying to stay warm by the fire, imagine trying to incubate an egg in -20F degree weather! While you’re trying to plan the perfect holiday feast, imagine planning ahead so well that you have stored sufficient food to get you through months of brutal winter weather! The fact that the parents and chicks survive in such conditions has naturally caused scientists to study these birds.

One of the longest running bird studies has been of the Gray Jay. A study in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada has been studying the Gray Jay continuously for over 50 years! During that time, the scientists have discovered a number of interesting facts about the Gray Jay. Some will have three broods during the course of nesting season (February – May), with each brood normally containing three nestlings. The quality and quantity of food given to nestlings may affect them throughout their lifetime. Gray Jays store their food in trees to survive the winter months, but climate change has caused rising temperatures which appear to result in rotted stored food. The Gray Jay population in the area has declined by 50% since the 1980s, and the scientists surmise that the food rot may be at least partially responsible for that decline. (Freeman, WRS Research Report 2015).

Gray Jays have been around for a very long time. Paleontologists found the fossils of two Gray Jays from 18,000 years ago in Cheek Bend Cave in Tennessee alongside the fossil remains of a Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl! (Parmalee, “Evidence of a Boreal Avifauna in Middle Tennessee During the Late Pleistocene, April 1982)

Identifying these birds depends on where you are standing. In the Rockies, they are more pale and have less contrast than those in the boreal forest, for example. They are on a constant lookout for food, so they do not sit still very long. Since they must store so much food (tens of thousands of food items each year), they cannot afford to rest!

So while you’re planning your meal, studying for exams, and complaining about the cold, take a moment and consider the life of the Gray Jay. Suddenly, things won’t seem so bad![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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