Wild Profile: Meet the Canada jay

Published: February 4, 2020

Canada jay By Rod MacPherson/Shutterstock

The Canada jay (a.k.a. grey jay, a.k.a. whisky jack) is smaller, friendlier, and less noisy than its corvid cousins. But when it comes to winter toughness, the Canada jay has most other jays—most other songbirds, in fact—easily beat.

Canada jays are one of the earliest nest-builders of all birds, constructing their nurseries from twigs, bark, and lichen as early as February, and incubating their eggs even when it’s as cold as -30°C. An odd choice for reproductive success, since winter is when food is most scarce for pretty much all living creatures. But Canada jay don’t care! Possibly because these scrappy, bold little birds will eat anything: seeds and nuts; fungus; the blood-filled ticks off the back of a moose; nestlings, eggs, and small mammals, including rodents and baby bats; carrion; and, boldly, sandwiches or trail mix stolen from cottages, cabins, and tents (thus the nickname “camp robber”). Pffft, kind of rude. So un-Canadian.

Canada jays can live year-round in all provinces and territories, no matter how cold it gets. One secret to their adaptability? Their excellent ability to cache food during the summer, and find it again in the winter.

The little birds have enlarged salivary glands, and they put them to good use. They’ll stuff a morsel of food—a dead arthropod, say—into their mouths, roll it around until it’s gluey with spit, then stick this food/spit ball into a hiding spot somewhere in the trees. Unlike other food-caching critters, who often make a winter larder in one particular spot (a hollowed-out tree, for example), Canada jays spread their thousands of caches over a wide area of forest. Thanks to—apparently—recall skills that are far better than our own, they can recollect all their hiding spots when winter comes around, and retrieve their frozen dinners. Don’t play any card-matching memory games with these guys! You will lose.

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