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Declaring the mystery of the Gray Jay

There is plenty in the world of birds that is puzzling, not only to the casually interested, but to experts as well.

Take irruptions for example. Bird irruption is defined as an irregular migration. On this continent that means often spectacular fall or winter mass movements of species that normally live year-round in Canada or Alaska. Best known among these travelers are probably the "winter" finches: Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and others. Last winter, northern Minnesota experienced an unprecedented irruption of northern owls that lured eager bird watchers in from all over the world. Irruptions are thought to coincide with a crash in the particular bird's food source.

Less understood are the movements of the Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). Gray Jays usually stick close to their range in the boreal forest of the north and to spruce/fir regions of the Rocky Mountains. But this fall has produced quite a number of reports from our area. Northern Minnesotans are seeing the bird in unusual numbers. Grand Forks County has had a handful of reports. A likely sighting occurred near Glyndon last month and one was photographed in western Cass County last weekend.

Anyone who has camped in northern Minnesota or the Rockies is familiar with this bird. It is known by a few colloquial names like "Whiskey-Jack," "Venison-Hawk," or "Camp-Robber." The bird seems to appear out of nowhere whenever there is food in the area. Lumberjacks, hunters and trappers will tell tales of the antics of this forest dweller. A very trusting bird that is easily tamed, it is said to provide needed companionship to folks in lonely northern locales.

The Gray Jay is slightly larger than a Robin and has a long tail and short, rounded wings. Its neck, breast and forehead are a pearly gray. The back of the head is a dark gray to almost black while its back and tail are a lighter gray. It has black eyes, feet and bill.

Unlike others in the Crow (Corvidae) family, this bird has exceptionally fluffy down feathers--up to 65 mm long. It's this abundance of insulation that likely helps it endure the long cold winter of the North. It also gives the bird a very quiet flight. It is amazing to watch Gray Jays buoyantly hopping from branch to branch before sailing silently to the picnic table.

Gray Jays eat just about anything--insects, fruits, seeds, etc. What it can't finish it stores. The bird wraps food in a sticky saliva ball and caches these morsels in trees to be eaten later. With such a diverse diet why are they coming south this fall?

One clue may be sibling rivalry. It seems that the parents only allow one youngster to stay with them after nesting. Once fledged, the dominant juvenile will oust its siblings for this privilege. The obvious advantage with staying is the relative abundance of stored food. Are we currently seeing the castaways from disrupted families?

To indicate the infrequency of what we are witnessing, the last time one was identified in Cass or Clay Country was 1987. A farmstead north of West Fargo recorded one in 1974. In The Birds of Manitoba it states, "Gray Jays occur in Winnipeg only once every few years." Yet a Manitoba birder wrote this in October: "Winnipeg is simply full of them."

Why they are showing up this fall is a mystery. Unlike its distant cousin, the Blue Jay, Gray Jays are rarely seen at feeders. However, they do seem to switch to a more meat and fat diet in the winter so those with suet feeders have a remote chance of seeing one. If anyone does I'd sure like to hear from you. Feel free to contact me with any other bird question as well.