Memories of another trip to the Colorado Rockies are still fresh in my mind as muscles recover from climbing peaks and ridges, crawling over deadfalls and packing out a mule deer on my back.
I’m very grateful for the gift that my deer represents. The venison will be dined on throughout the year, reminding me of the mountains and experiences I’m blessed to be able to enjoy.
The deer also reminds me of an important fact: that nothing goes to waste in nature. Indeed, upon my return the following morning to retrieve the venison I had de-boned the night before, I was keenly aware of nature’s way a few hundred yards before arriving at the carcass and the stashed meat, as numerous birds -- black-billed magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, gray jays, and ravens -- had already discovered the remains of the deer.
While gathering the meat from game bags that I had buried in the foot-deep snow only a few feet from the carcass, some of the more bold birds, namely gray jays, also known as Canada jays, began filtering back to nearby trees to monitor my activities. Others, such as ravens and magpies, had scattered from the site when they saw me approaching from the steep aspen draw below.
At first the gray jays kept their distance, but soon, as they observed and evaluated my actions, a few began flying closer, inching their way down the trunks and limbs of adjacent trees. One particular jay, perhaps a more mature and experienced bird, eventually landed on the ground a few feet from the carcass and me.
As I took a few photos of the jay while avoiding making any sudden movements, the bird cocked its head in a curious sideways, one-eyed glance, followed by an abrupt and decisive hop onto the carcass. Pausing for just a second to look me over one last time, the jay commenced to picking at the carcass with its sharp beak, consuming its fill, and then gathered up as much fat and red meat as it could to fly off and cache.
Possibly emboldened by the courage of this lone gray jay, other jays soon followed suit and, one-by-one, began alighting on the carcass to feed from and make haste with mouthfuls of scraps to hide in the surrounding forest.
The latter behavior is a well-known habit of gray jays and other corvids. Caching foodstuffs for later consumption is a survival tactic that serves birds well when the weather turns severe and makes finding food more difficult. Gray jays, for example, produce sticky saliva that is used to glue foodstuffs onto trees, limbs, and into fissures of trees and other objects. Possessing incredible spatial memories, gray jays have the extraordinary ability to remember where most of their food hiding spots are located.
An interesting behavior to observe, gray jays go to great lengths to not only find suitable locations to cache their booty, they are also ever vigilant that their caching activities go undetected by other gray jays. I was amused by one such bird as it deployed diversionary tactics in this regard. After flying from the carcass with a mouthful of flesh and fat, the jay landed on a perch not far from the carcass and within full view of other jays.
The jay pretended to stuff some of its food into a hole or crack in the limb and then quickly flew off. Almost immediately two other jays landed on the same limb and began searching for the supposed cache, seemingly never finding it as far as I could determine. Meanwhile, the trickster jay had already separated itself from the would-be thieves by a considerable distance as it no doubt searched for and found a secure and out-of-sight place to cache its prize.
Before descending the mountainside for the 2½-mile trek to camp laden with a pack-frame full of venison, I looked around the mountainside one last time. The site, teeming with bird life including mountain chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and Steller’s jays, all competing with gray jays and nutcrackers for their turn to feed, were now unconcerned by my presence, having apparently determined that I posed no threat after all.
And so I turned and began my journey down slope -- thankful for the venison, and they theirs, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.