Camp Robbers

gray-jay-turquoiselake-2004sept13-lah-002We had been camping at Turquoise Lake, near Leadville, Colorado, high in the Rockies. As it was lunchtime, we spread out a tablecloth, set out a bowl of chicken salad (with chicken, grapes, celery, and pecans), and went to find the plates and forks. But as I returned to set the table, the salad seemed to be missing something… the pecans were gone! Seems we’d been victims of the camp robber!

“Camp Robber” is an apt nickname for the Gray Jay. Familiar residents of campgrounds throughout the coniferous forests across Canada and southward along the Rockies, these small jays aren’t the least bit shy. The birds have a tendency to not only accept handouts, but to brazenly help themselves to anything on your plate that looks edible.

There is a reason these birds are so intent on grabbing lots of food. Unlike most northern birds, they don’t migrate.

gray-jay-1All summer, the jays collect lots and lots of food—pine nuts, acorns, insects, berries, and even baby birds or dead animals—while it’s plentiful. Some they eat right away while the rest they store for the long, snowy, northern winter ahead. To keep this cache safe, the jays hide each morsel in a different place, under tree park, stuffed into crevices, or any nook or cranny that will still be accessible in deep snows. As added insurance, the food is coated with sticky saliva that glues it into place. Yum, yum.

Amazingly, the jays remember where they put each tidbit, unlike other winter hoarders such as squirrels (who end up planting entire oak forests with their forgotten acorns).

This strategy of storing food for the winter rather than heading south really pays off. While migratory songbirds have a 40 to 50% mortality rate, over 80% of the jays survive from year to year.

So, how do they spend their winters? With their food supply secure, they could sit around and relax with a good book and a cup of tea, but instead, they go into high gear, building a nest and raising a family! Imagine sitting on a clutch of eggs or trying to keep newly hatched chicks warm while the mercury plummets to 30 below zero.

There has to be an upside to nesting in the snow, and sure enough, there is: nesting this early means they don’t have to compete for nesting sites with all those migratory birds. The young jays are fledged before those fair-weather birds return from the tropics.

gray-jay_rmnp_lah_8418To begin with, all the babies huddle for warmth, and it’s one big, happy family. But once the weather warms, sibling rivalry gets serious. It finally comes to blows. The strongest young jay will oust its brothers and sisters from their parents’ territory. If these losers are lucky, they’ll find another place to call their own. Most of the time, however, they die. Being homeless is bad news for people or birds.

Meanwhile, the winning youngster will hang around home for a year or two, waiting its chance at a vacancy in a near-by territory. In the meantime, he (or she) will earn his keep by helping with the chores, including nest-building, feeding mom while she’s incubating, feeding his new brothers and sisters, and helping defend the place from intruders.

If you live in (or visit) Colorado, one of the best places to see Gray Jays is Rocky Mountain National Park. In particular, check out the parking area at  Rainbow Curve. You’ll find them perched on the “Do not feed the animals” sign, angling for handouts. Just remember, if you feed them something like corn chips or pizza (both of which I saw happen during my visit last month), you could be condemning them to starvation come winter. Most human “foods” aren’t sturdy enough to still be edible months after being stuffed into a crack in a branch for storage!

If you’d like to learn more, I recommend  Gray Jay Research in Algonquin Park (Ontario), the source of much of my information.

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