BWhiskey jack is a curious bird
I heard its sweet and clear whistles before I saw it. Seconds later the graceful bird glided to a stop on a flimsy twig of an aspen sapling just a few feet from me. I turned my head slowly to look at the bird, and said, "Well, hello there."
The bird, a gray jay, looked directly into my eyes, cocking its head slightly to its side as it did so. Interested only slightly in me, my avian companion was much more attracted to the deer's entrails that I had just removed from my recently harvested northern Minnesota buck. Indeed, the gray jay examined the internal organs lying on the ground for a moment before abruptly flying off, only to land high in a nearby tree to glance back once more as it made a mental note of the buffet's location. And then off my gray jay visitor flew.
I've had encounters with gray jays in similar circumstances before. In fact, last month in Colorado while quartering out my mule deer, I was visited almost immediately by not only a gray jay, but a related species, a Clark's nutcracker. I was fascinated to watch these two birds take turns picking at the carcass. In the case of those two particular birds, the nutcracker was the dominant bird; the gray jay always moved off of the carcass when the nutcracker made its return trips.
Native Americans called the gray jay, also known as Canada jay to some, "Wiskatjon." Other names given to the bird by early explorers that are derived from the bird's Indian name were whiskey-john and whiskey-jack. A somewhat tame and very inquisitive bird, the gray jay has always been known in forest encampments as a thief -stealing food, tobacco, and other small objects whenever and wherever it could. The bird would even enter tents and other structures to explore and steal and, thus, another name - camp robber.
As its name indicates, the gray jay is a gray-colored bird with a dark nape, white throat and white forehead; few other birds resemble it. As already mentioned, the related Clark's nutcracker, which is a resident of western North America, is similar looking and behaving. Additionally, two other unrelated species share plumage similarities - the northern shrike and loggerhead shrike. Juvenile gray jays are a darker slate color all over and lack the white throat and forehead and lighter underparts of the adults.
Among its corvid relatives, however, there is something quite unique about the bird's anatomy and habits. Gray jays possess 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 creations.
During past trips to the Rocky Mountains and places such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I've watched and listened to these agile and vocal birds glide from the canopies of nearby pines and spruces and land on limbs just a few feet above my head as they searched for tasty morsels around my camps.
It often was the case that at the beginning of such trips, the birds were wary; yet, in a few of the most extraordinary cases, some gray jays, as they became accustomed to me, began to forage on the ground next to my feet, while others fed out of my hands.
A few years ago, my hunting partners discovered that peanuts were a favorite item for our jays, as were bits of trail mix and unfinished oatmeal breakfasts. As well, we watched in amazement as the birds cached their goodies and return for more, sometimes chasing other gray jays from the area. We presumed, and probably correctly so, that these gray jays were undoubtedly watching the locations that other jays were caching foodstuffs and so were robbing each other.
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.
The delightful birds 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 assist one another in rearing and feeding their hungry and demanding brood, which, once fledged, remain together as a family group.
The gray jay is a wonderful part of Minnesota's Northland. In fact, the bird has come to symbolize wild and remote areas, much like the wolf, the raven and the loon do. One of the first species of birds to become active in the early dawn, they will glide from branch to branch calling to each other in soft whistles and pleasant coos as they go. If a gray jay spots you, he may come for a closer look. Once satisfied of its insatiable curiosity, he will move on.
However, if you provide Wiskatjon some food he may even land next to you, or, better yet, somewhere on you. Still, as charming a bird as they are, it might be best to keep your valuables close by (just in case he should so decide to steal) as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.