The Gray Jay

Also known as the whiskey jack bird or the Canada jay, this lovely little bird has just been recommended by the Canadian Geographic society to be the National Bird of Canada (though this decision has yet to be formally recognized by any government body). The gray jay can be found not only in Québec, but has a range that includes all provinces and territories of Canada, and can also be found in parts of Alaska and the Western mountains of the United States (which, incidentally, is the same area in which my friend’s plumbing services are available). This is the extent of the bird’s range, having not been recorded outside the continent of North America. The three aforementioned names all come from different sources, the most common having, perhaps, the dullest origins. The name gray* jay was decided upon by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1957, and came about based simply upon the system of nomenclature they used at the time.

The name Canada jay had been used for about 200 years before the official name was given it, but it, rather sadly, falling into disuse. Finally, and certainly the most rooted in tradition, the name whiskey jack has nothing at all to do with alcohol, but rather is an anglicisation of the Algonquin name Wisakedjak, a mythological figure associated with a number of First Nations cultures.

This bird is a remarkably friendly one, and has been known to approach campers and lumberjacks – and all sorts of other people who can be found in northern forests – for food. This behaviour has earned in many nicknames, such as camp-robber and lumberjack.  That said, these clever little creatures

certainly don’t need our help in order to survive. They are what’s called “scatterhoarders,” meaning that they find lots of food during months in which food is available (that is to say, months that aren’t winter months), and store it all around their territory so that they may find it and use it in the winter, where food gets scarce. In order to store it, the gray jay mixes the food with saliva, at which point it becomes a sticky ball known as a bolus, and then stores it behind bits of bark, or in amongst needles of coniferous trees, or under bits of lichen.

This ability allows the grey jay to stay up North all year round, and they have been found taking care of their eggs in temperatures as low as -30. The male and female take equal part in the nesting process, the male finding the place to build the nest, and bringing food to the female as she incubates the eggs and then continues to sit on the nest in order to keep the brand new babies warm.

Interestingly, during the nest-building phase, the monogamous pair of gray jays (for the birds mate for life) are often accompanied by a juvenile bird, usually an offspring from the previous breeding season. They will aid in the nest-building, and then, only in the post-fledgling period of the lives of their younger siblings, they will aid in the retrieval of food caches for their brothers and sisters.

Though there is still controversy as to whether the grey jay will, indeed, be Canada’s National Bird, in my opinion (and I’m allowed to have one of those here, because it’s my blog), he’s a great choice. Happily, the grey jay is listed as least concern according to the IUCN Red List. May it always remain so.

*For anyone wondering, this American spelling of grey is used because it is the official spelling of the name of the bird, as recognised by the American Ornithologists’ Union.