By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
Friends of mine who are members of the Museum, suggested that the Canada, or gray jay was worth writing about, and after researching them more, I have to agree. Gray jays are residents of northern Wisconsin, but tend to be more common in more remote areas. They prefer habitats that include black or white spruce, or jack pine. It is believed that cold temperatures are a key requirement of habitat to ensure that these birds will survive.
Gray jays have an amazing adaptation, the ability to use glands in their beak to secrete a mucous, or sticky saliva. Using their saliva they glue together groups of berries or other perishable food and wedge it into the bark of trees. The bird is preferential to certain tree species simply because the bark is designed with scales that hold the food better. The colder temperatures mixed with antibacterial properties of the trees work to keep the food from spoiling. The jays will cache thousands of food objects during the summer for their winter use.
During the warm months, gray jays eat beetles, wasps, caterpillars, grasshoppers, or other insects or arthropods. They also eat small rodents, nestling birds, eggs, berries and fruit. They have even been observed eating fungi and slime molds. Sometimes they will eat their prey live. Gray jays also have been observed feeding on engorged ticks off of moose.
Gray jays are often called camp robbers because of their behavior of stealing human food. They will enter tents or camp buildings in order to steal food. They then leave quickly to eat or store their food some place else.
Another interesting feature about the gray or Canada jay is that they begin nesting much earlier than other birds, right now in March and April. Scientists believe that nesting now might provide an advantage for the adults while they still have winter food cached to feed their young.
However, what happens after they leave the nest is a surprise. At first, the siblings huddle together to share their warmth, but five weeks out of their nest they begin to fight, and the dominant youth will push the siblings out of their territory. The “boss” juvenile will then stay with their parents through the next winter, learning, being protected, and benefiting from adult food supplies. The “brothers” and “sisters” then experience a mortality rate of 80%, most of them dying by fall.
Get outdoors and listen for the soft, harsh, "cha-cha-cha-cah” calls, or the whistled “whee-oo.” Look for the large gray songbird with a long tail, pale gray face and forehead, and a dark cap that extends down onto its cheek. Maybe you will be fortunate enough to see one in your own back yard!
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Or find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org, discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com/ to learn more about our exhibits and programs.