Chunky gray jays beg hikers for granola

January 16, 2010

            In early winter, our party of peak-baggers hustled along cloud-shrouded Willey Range: Mounts Avalon, Field, Willey and Tom. The Willey Range confers three summits in one day to those working to climb all forty-eight peaks on the official list of four-thousand footers. The hike from Mt. Field over to Mt. Willey and then back was a slog, a requisite pilgrimage for those intent on collecting the peaks and for one hapless enough to accompany them.

            Clouds spilled over the rim of Crawford Notch as a snowstorm approached from the west. Lunch without views on the Mt. Willey summit was cold comfort: water, crackers, granola, fruit… until the Gray Jay showed up.

            Gray Jays or “Canada Jays” haunt the frosty summits of the White Mountain summits year-round. Its nickname “Whiskey Jack” is alleged to be a corruption of the aboriginal Algonquian-Cree Indian names “Wee-sah-ka-chak.”

The resident northern jays know that brightly-clad hikers scatter sunflower seeds, raisins, bits of bread, cheese and even an occasional morsel of chocolate near the windswept summits of the White Mountains. The chunky birds have an endearing way of perching and begging for spilled bits of granola. They appear to eat some and continue to accept offerings which they cache, returning as often as they can during the narrow lunchtime window when hikers rest.

Hikers and campers play a trust-building game of getting jays to perch in hand, on a shoulder or on top of a hat. Once the role food dispensary is established, the traditional White Mountain lunch game is to try to photograph a jay perched on your head or in hand. It isn’t that easy.

The early travelers and fur trappers in the Canadian wilderness territories were less amused when the jays robbed baited traps and camp food supplies. The list of other old colloquial names includes: meat-bird, camp robber, moose-bird and venison hawk.

            Gray jays are closely related to the “Siberian Jay” found from Norway to eastern Russia and also the “Sichuan Jay” that lives in the mountains of Tibet and northwestern China. Our North American Gray Jay is the archetype bird of the Canadian boreal forest where it lives year-round.

Gray jays occupy and defend permanent territories averaging from 62 to 250 acres comprising black spruce and white spruce. These particular conifers typically occupy northern latitudes and mountain altitudes where temperatures are sufficiently cold to facilitate long-term storage of perishable food. Platy spruce tree bark scales are arranged like overlapping shingles which allow jays to wedge and store food items in hidden dry crevices that the jays somehow remember. I can’t even find the ketchup bottle on the door of my refrigerator!

Researchers speculate that spruce bark and needles confer mild antibacterial properties that help to retard food spoilage. To a gray jay, the forest is one big refrigerated food pantry.

Gray Jays do not open spruce cones to eat conifer seeds like northern finches. The storing of food in bark crevices using sticky salvia allows gray jays to skip the rigors and hazards of migration. Researches have documented annual adult gray jay survival rates of 80% which is higher than comparably-sized birds. More jays die in summer from predation by migratory hawks than from starvation during the long, harsh winter when food is relatively scarce.

Remarkably, gray jays begin nesting in mid-February and incubate eggs in March even as heavy snow continues to fall. Two nestlings are typically raised during April but only one may remain in its natal territory with the parents. The second, smaller fledgling is driven out of its natal territory by the larger, dominant sibling even before most other migratory birds have returned in May. The dominant sibling learns food caching behavior from its parents and benefits from the collective group effort to store and the remember locations.

The orphaned sibling may find an unoccupied adjacent territory or find surrogate parents where a resident pair was unsuccessful in raising young. These adults without chicks of their own essentially “adopt” an unrelated immigrant juvenile. Thus, gray jay trios typically consist of two adults with either a related or unrelated juvenile apprentice.

Jays do not re-nest or raise a second brood later in spring. Early breeding and chick-rearing allows adult jays to focus exclusively on collecting and storing food during the long days and short nights of our brief northern summer. Jays work every nook and cranny in their spruce forest, alpine territory while travelling in a loose flock. Working together, each jay benefits from the collective group effort to search for food and avoid predators.

The summer and autumn White Mountain hiking season is prime time for scoring treats from the human visitors to the cool summits which are devoid of people during the long winter. The jays are professionals. Their survival depends on it.

By the time our hiking party arrived for lunch on the summit of Mt. Willey, daylight was already fading and the prospect looked good for a heavy overnight snowfall. The mountain mood turned somber as gray jay plumage. In the jay’s dark eye was a clear understanding that lean time were nigh. Lodged in its tiny avian memory was intimate knowledge of mapped locations of hundreds of bits of food essential to ensuring winter survival and a successful late winter nesting season.

In that eleventh hour, we bagged the summit of Mt. Tom and returned to our car down on the floor of Crawford Notch before the last rays of weak winter sunlight drained west down the Ammonoosuc Valley.

High above us in the dark spruce forest, small bits of our lunch – and the lunches of all the hikers who visited those summits before us last year – were tucked safely away beneath the clean, cold plates of black spruce bark.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at or through the Forest Society's Web site: