GREY JAY – (Perisoreus canadensis)
The Grey jay, also called Canada jay or Whiskey jack, is a year-round resident of the boreal forest throughout Canada up to the tree line. It is around 30 cm (12 in.) long, is mostly grey (as the English name implies). The back and wings are medium grey, the under parts light grey, the head dark grey, the forehead and cheeks white. The short bill and the legs and feet are black. Sexes are similar, but juveniles are dark grey. The bird has thick feathers to provide extra insulation in its harsh habitat.
The name ‘Whiskey jack’ is the anglicization of the Algonquin name for the bird, ‘wisakedjak’, which refers to a benevolent being. It therefore has nothing to do with whisky! The bird has an important cultural significance for several First Nations.
In order to survive the long Canadian winter, grey jays are hoarding food in thousands of caches, after wrapping it in their saliva and carefully covering it with moss, leaves or lichen. They apparently are able to remember the cache locations.
This bird species will lay their eggs in the middle of the winter, and the female will incubate them in freezing temperatures. The male feeds her while she keeps the eggs warm. The nest is insulated with cocoons and feathers and just large enough for the eggs and the mother’s body.
The grey jay emits a variety of calls and sounds, but is not as vocal as the blue jay. It can also imitate the call of their predators, as a possible signal to other jays.
The diet of this species is quite diverse – from insects and arthropods to small rodents to bird chicks, fungi, berries and seeds. They will even pick blood-gorged ticks from the back of moose.
Grey jays have learned to associate humans with food in the forest, and will visit lodges, camps, and highway rest areas. They can become quite tame as well, and be hand-fed. A popular activity is to place some food on a person’s covered head, & take photos while the bird picks it!
The grey jay breeds on PEI, however its presence is listed as rare to uncommon year-round, depending on the number of recorded observations, and it is observed mainly in the eastern part of the province. In addition to Canada, it overall territory includes part of Alaska and sub-alpine forests in the American Rockies.
There is an ongoing research project at Algonquin Park, ON, on the grey jay, where the population of this bird declined markedly in the last few decades.
NATIONAL BIRD: Ahead of the Canada 150th Anniversary celebrations, Canadian Geographic Society launched a competition to name a national bird, since there is currently none. Among the finalist birds was the grey jay, and it was chosen by the society as our new ‘national bird’. However, since the federal government never itself endorsed this campaign, the nomination went nowhere, and Canada ended up not having a national bird yet, even for its 150th anniversary. (Out of the 206 countries in the world, only half of them have a national bird.)
Conservation: the grey jay is not considered as threatened, however there is a concern about the bird’s population in the southern part of its range, due to climate change. This is because the species is so well adapted to long, cold winters. For example, milder winters will spoil the cached food before the bird can eat it.