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Blane Klemek: Gray Jay, a.k.a. camp robber

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Brother-in-law Jim, while a good woodsman, has a habit of misplacing items. It’s not uncommon to see him buzzing around Deer Camp in search of something or patting his clothes pockets frantically thinking he had just lost something. So, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed him digging into his packs, sifting through containers, looking under vehicle seats, and patting his clothes pockets once again, I knew something was missing again.

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At last he gave up and, with a worried look, gulped, “I think I lost the truck keys!”  But as these things typically turn out, all ended well. Jim didn’t loose the keys at all; our other camp mate had had them the whole time.

Of course the news that the keys were not missing came as great relief to Jim, especially since the worse case scenario that played out in his mind while he searched high and low did not come to pass. He admitted that he had feared the worst and, as he put it, “A camp robber had stolen the keys”, adding that, “. . . and finding them would be a lost cause.”

A camp robber?! Not a human, mind you, but, rather, our feathered camp friends whose relatives include ravens, crows, magpies, and blue and Steller’s jays, and others: the gray jay. Indeed, the gray jay, sometimes called Canada jay of old-time ornithology, is an intelligent, bold, and curious member of the family Corvidae. About 9 ½ to 12 ½ inches in length, trappers and loggers of yesteryear have also called the gray jay “Whisky Jack” and, as already mentioned, “Camp Robber.”

To American Indians, the bird was called “Wis-ka-tjon.”  A somewhat tame and highly curious bird, the gray jay was well known in forest encampments as a thief—stealing food, tobacco, and other small objects whenever and wherever it could (thus, “camp robber”). And since the species is well known for entering encampments to explore, scavenge, and steal, brother-in-law Jim’s fears for the temporarily lost keys were well founded.

A gray bird with a dark nape, white throat and white forehead, few other birds resemble it. The Clark’s nutcracker of western United States and the two species of shrikes are the only birds that I can think of that come close to resembling gray jays. Juvenile gray jays are a darker slate color and lack the white throat and forehead and lighter underparts of adult birds.

Among its corvid relatives, however, there is something quite unique about gray jays’ anatomy and habits. The gray jay possesses special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to “glue” foodstuffs together. This enables the bird to clump food together, like berries, nuts, insects, and other foods, and stick the bonded morsels onto branches, under tree-bark crevices, inside tree cavities, and the like. Their habit of caching food is instinctive, which helps the bird survive harsh winters. During lean times the bird can return to its many caches and feast on its globular morsels.

During my annual western adventures hunting deer and elk in the Rocky Mountains, my hunting partners and I always enjoy observing these agile and vocal birds gravitate to our camps from the canopies of nearby pine and aspen trees as they search for tasty treats. At the beginning of our hunts, gray jays tend to be wary of our advances or offerings, but in a very short time most of the birds land on the ground next to our feet and will sometimes even feed out of our hands.

Peanuts are a favorite item, as are bits from trail mix and our oatmeal breakfasts. As well, we usually see the birds cache their goodies and return for more, sometimes chasing other gray jays from the area. We often presume that these camp robbers are not at all opposed to robbing the caches of their own kind, thus a good reason for the spirited pursuits we often observe.   

Gray jays range throughout most of Alaska and Canada, through the Rockies and northern United States, including northern Minnesota. They tend to be permanent residents within their range, but do on years of short food supplies migrate to southern locales in periodic irruptions.

They nest while snow is still on the ground, usually in March, in stick nests that they build and line with feathers, fur, and plant-down for warmth. Three to four eggs are laid and incubated by the female. Both parents take part in raising and feeding a hungry and demanding brood, which, once fledged, remain together as a family group.

The gray jay is a wonderful part of the Northland. One of the first species of birds to become active in the early dawn, they will glide from branch to branch calling in soft whistles and coos to one another as they go. If a gray jay spots you, he may come for a closer look and, once satisfied, will move on.

If you provide him with some food he may even land next to you or, better yet, on you. Still, as delightful a species of bird as they are, it’s probably a good idea that we keep any of our small and valuable items — keys, jewelry, coins — hidden as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@ yahoo.com

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