Bravest of the boreal birds…

gray jay collecting fruit and storing it away.
gray jay collecting fruit and storing it away.

I have been watching the gray jays that hang around our property tugging and pulling at potential nest materials for the past few days. They were mostly intent on grasses, pieces of my grape vine and feathers floating around the eagle pens, hauling them somewhere across our pond. This morning, the deer fought over the chicken food I had tossed around for my pigeons, knocking out big clumps of hair as they struck each other. After they moved on, one of the jays raced around cramming the clumps of hair in his or her beak and flew off with its find. The young jays, once hatched, should be plenty warm.
The reason I deemed the jays to be the bravest is that they pick the dead of winter to raise up their young. Not only can the days and night be bitter, but available food is limited.
Their habit of storing food all winter long helps to ensure the young will have food, but food can be scarce in the forest. One of their high protein food sources that they rely on are the bloated winter ticks that fall from moose in March onto the snow. Jays will gather these and store them away, gluing them down with their sticky saliva until they are needed to feed the young. I remember one snowy February a co-worker and I were marking a wood harvesting block, following the tracks of a moose that would continually rub its back and sides on stumps and trees trying to rid itself of the annoying, itching ticks. The jays were following along the tracks, picking up the ticks that had fallen off or had been squished on the stump. I just wonder how many of the live ticks crawled off after the jay had stored it though, or if they knew to kill them first. And now since moose populations in many areas around here have crashed, what protein source replaces the ticks full of moose blood?
There is little information on nests of gray jays, indeed in all our years of trekking through all types of habitat, neither Bruce nor I have ever seen the ones described in bird and nest identification books. I have, though, on two occasions, seen them going in and out of pileated woodpecker holes in old rotten aspen chicots and once into an owl nest box set up on our property. I also saw evidence that they had used a mistletoe or twiggy growth in a balsam to raise young.
This year, since I am retired, I am going to make an effort to see where my birds nest. Maybe I will be able to add a record to Ontario Nesting Birds.

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