Outdoor Radio: The Winter-Loving Gray Jay

Mar 26, 2015

On a balmy, 25-degree afternoon in winter, three Vermonters go to the tiny town of Victory in the Northeast Kingdom in search of the fearless Gray Jay.

Surrounded by an abundance of snow and chickadees, biologists Kent McFarland and Sara Zahendra stand at the Victory basin with Bill Barnard, a professor at Norwich University, who has been studying Gray Jays for over 20 years.

“Were going to walk up the trail and periodically I’ll have some distress calls that I’ll play,” says Barnard. “If Gray Jays are within 300 yards, they’ll come flying in.”

Once Barnard lures in a Gray Jay, which are known to come very close for almost any food, he’ll place a colored band on its leg. “When we see a bird, then we can actually know who it is and if it’s still alive, how it’s doing,” says McFarland. Barnard says it’s fun to bring the records with him while he’s tracking and often gets excited at recognizing the colored bands.

Barnard brings the group to a patch of evergreen trees, which is an old beaver meadow. “It’s surrounded by a pretty thick patch of conifer trees and that’s what we’re looking for, because we’re after Gray Jays,” says McFarland. “We’re lucky to be out here chasing [them] with Bill. How are we going to see this Gray Jay better?”

Barnard takes out an English muffin from his bag. “I’m just trying to get his attention. The birds that I’ve dealt with before, if they see you throw food out, they will come swooping down, but this bird may be naïve,” he says. The professor explains that Gray Jays will come down, grab the food and cache it, or save it, for later.

“We saw that one flying in the woods,” says Zahendra. “Has he disappeared?”

Barnard lures the Gray Jays with a distress call. He says if they are within 300 yards, they'll come flying in.
Credit Chris Albertine / VPR

“They may come back,” replies Barnard. “During the winter, you are almost always going to see a group of three.” He explains that the male and female Gray Jays mate for life, and in June all of the siblings in the nest fight among themselves, with the most dominant offspring driving the others off the territory. “So that the dominant offspring stays with the mom and dad all summer, fall, winter, until they start nesting again. And at that point, that bird will take off, but on a couple occasions, I’ve had them stay and help [with the next nest],” he says.

Zahendra asks, “Why would they want to hang around with their parents for an extra year?”

"During the winter, you are almost always going to see a group of three." - Bill Barnard

Barnard explains that there’s value in having more eyes to view predators, and that they can learn the ropes that way. He says that Gray Jays build their nests in late winter and incubate in March and April.

“It’s amazing that this bird is going to nest right now with all this snow and cold,” says Zahendra. “Why would they want to breed now? It’s freezing cold, all the other birds are breeding in June … What do they gain from it?”

"The feathers on the Gray Jay are just absolutely amazing. They must be comfortable right down to 70 below," says Bill Barnard.
Credit Kent McFarland

Barnard explains that the offspring go into their first winter much older and stronger. “And because they have additional food, they can do it. The feathers on the Gray Jay are just absolutely amazing. They must be comfortable right down to 70 below,” he explains.

“So right now, are they still hoarding, will they still be caching things? Or will they be using the cache mostly?” asks McFarland.

The Gray Jay has very thick saliva, which it uses to help store food by sticking it to trees.
Credit Kent McFarland

Barnard explains that they’ll do both. “If they find food in abundance, they’ll eat, and they’ll cache what’s left,” he says. He also notes that the Gray Jay has very thick saliva, which works to their food storing advantage. “They use it to coat the food to stick it up into trees. It dries the form like a shellac material over the food,” he says.

"Gray Jays are said to be one of the quieter members of the jay family, but I don't find that to be the case."

Zahendra describes the Gray Jay as “soft and fuzzy.” Barnard agrees. “The Gray Jay is approximately the same size as a Blue Jay, but lacks the crest. They have a smooth crown and the barbs on their feathers appear to be separated more than a normal bird. So the body plumage is almost owl-like in its quality,” he says. He explains this plumage gives the bird better insulation, which helps with their winter incubating schedule.

“So really, they look just like Blue Jays … but gray,” says McFarland. “They’re much rounder,” explains Barnard. “Their head appears larger and Blue Jays are much more vocal. Gray Jays are said to be one of the quieter members of the jay family, but I don’t find that to be the case.”

Barnard plays the distress call several more times, hoping to lure another Gray Jay out from the trees.

The Victory Basin Trail System, where the three went searching for the Gray Jay, is a wetland and forest complex owned by the State of Vermont.
Credit Chris Albertine / VPR

“I hope they come in right away, because I don’t want to hear [that] much more,” jokes McFarland.

“At the end of the day, you get tired of it,” replies Barnard.

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Outdoor Radio is produced and edited by VPR's Chief Production Engineer, Chris Albertine.