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Gray Jays Fearless for a Handout

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the enclosed DVD. It’s a clip of a home movie that I took on a family hike in the White Mountains. The footage is a bit rough but you can clearly see a pair of plain-looking birds that appear to be begging for food, as we sat resting on a mountain top. We offered the birds some scraps of food and they instantly took them, right out of our hands. Is this film clip clear enough for you to tell me what kind of birds these were and why they were begging for food? Do you think they are escaped birds?

-Joe, Littleton, NH


Great movie Joe,

I love home movies, especially when they are short (less than forty seconds) and when they don’t involve somebody’s dog wearing a Santa’s hat or little kids in a bathtub. We’ve all seen enough of those. And don’t worry about the clip being clear, it was fine. Besides, sharp focusing and steady shots are way over rated. I liked it. It was like watching a nature version of the “Blair Witch Project.”

The birds in your forty second epic, Joe, were Gray Jays. It’s understandable why you would have trouble identifying them, Gray Jays are not your typical backyard birds. You have to go out of your way to find them; Gray Jays are birds of boreal forests. Boreal refers to the vast tracks of forests that ring the northern part of the northern hemisphere. The boreal forest is a dense stretch of evergreens that is bordered by the treeless tundra to the north and the shopping malls to the south. The trees are thick, the land is rugged, the people are few and the weather is harsher than harsh. This is the world of the Gray Jay.

Even though Gray Jays can be found in northern New England and in the mountain areas of our western states, I would bet that most people reading this have never seen one. And for those of you who have seen a Gray Jay, I’m sure you have fond memories of the day you met one of these charming birds.

As you might have guessed from their name, Gray Jays are gray in color. They have a coat of soft, puffy, gray feathers, which reminds me of a pale catbird that has gone through the fluff cycle in the dryer, after being washed in way too much fabric softener. Also, like catbirds, Gray Jays are friendly and inquisitive. Gray Jays are not only tolerant of people, they go out of their way to find them. Most of these jays live in isolated parts of Canada where only forest workers, hikers, hunters and old draft dodgers dare to go. The jays know that humans can’t go more than a few minutes without eating and they aren’t afraid of showing up uninvited. Open a cooler or a bag of snacks within earshot of a pair of Gray Jays and you’ll need to set the picnic table for two more.

A few years back one of my coworkers assisted in a Gray Jay research project in Alaska. Because the jays are so tame he could easily capture them in simple traps. He would then place leg bands on the birds, weigh them, measure them and do all of that other creepy researcher stuff to them. When he was finished messing with each bird he would release it from his left hand while holding out his right hand, which was filled with raisins. You might think a captured bird that had finally won its freedom would bolt to the nearest tall tree, screaming warnings and obscenities as it went. Not so with the Gray Jays. Once released they would pause, stuff their faces with raisins, and only then would they fly off to tell the other jays of their adventure.

For the most part Gray Jays aren’t migratory. They remain in the same location year round, regardless of how nasty and cold it gets. Remember we are talking Canada cold here. In order to survive the winter they must stash food. Gray Jays have, of all things, an enlarged saliva gland. When they find an extra morsel of food they will fly off and actually stick the food into a hidden spot, using their super-sticky saliva to hold it in place. The jays know the food will probably be there when they return, because even if their food is found, no bird would want to eat something covered in another bird’s spit.

Thanks again for the home movie Joe. It was fun watching the jays eat out of your hand. I also enjoyed the part of the movie you forgot to erase, where you are doing cannonballs into the local swimming hole. You sure have some relaxed dress codes in New Hampshire. Nice tan lines by the way.