Photo: Garth McElroy/Vireo

Gray Jay

Perisoreus canadensis

A hiker in the north woods sometimes will be followed by a pair of Gray Jays, gliding silently from tree to tree, watching inquisitively. These fluffy jays seem fearless, and they can be a minor nuisance around campsites and cabins, stealing food, earning the nickname "camp robber." Tough enough to survive year-round in very cold climates, they store excess food in bark crevices all summer, retrieving it in harsh weather. Surprisingly, they nest and raise their young in late winter and early spring, not during the brief northern summer.
Conservation status Most of breeding range is not subject to human disturbance. Has declined in a few areas after clearcutting of forest.
Family Crows, Magpies, Jays
Habitat Spruce and fir forests. Found in various kinds of coniferous and mixed forest, but rarely occurs where there are no spruce trees. Habitats include black spruce bogs in eastern Canada, forests of aspen and Engelmann spruce in Rockies, Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir on northwest coast.
A hiker in the north woods sometimes will be followed by a pair of Gray Jays, gliding silently from tree to tree, watching inquisitively. These fluffy jays seem fearless, and they can be a minor nuisance around campsites and cabins, stealing food, earning the nickname "camp robber." Tough enough to survive year-round in very cold climates, they store excess food in bark crevices all summer, retrieving it in harsh weather. Surprisingly, they nest and raise their young in late winter and early spring, not during the brief northern summer.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, Pacific
  • juvenile
  • Adult, Taiga
  • adult, Rocky Mountain
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

An opportunist in its foraging, flying from tree to tree searching for food. Boldly enters campsites and even cabins to steal food. Will attack rodents and small birds. Sometimes flies out to catch insects in mid-air. Regularly eats carrion, especially in winter, coming to kills left by wolves or other predators. Stores food items throughout the year, especially in summer, and may live on these caches in severe winter weather; the bird's sticky saliva helps it stick pieces of food in bark crevices and other spots. Can carry food items, even fairly large ones, in flight, sometimes carrying them with its feet.


Eggs

3-4, sometimes 2-5. Pale gray to greenish, dotted with brown, olive, or reddish. Incubation is by female only, about 18-22 days. Male sometimes brings food to female on nest. Young: Female broods young most of time at first while male brings food; later, both parents bring food to nest. Young leave nest at about 22-24 days, remain with parents for at least another month.


Young

Female broods young most of time at first while male brings food; later, both parents bring food to nest. Young leave nest at about 22-24 days, remain with parents for at least another month.

Diet

Omnivorous. Diet is remarkably varied, includes insects, spiders, berries, seeds, fungi, small rodents, birds' eggs, and carrion.


Nesting

Mated pairs stay together all year, and defend permanent territories. Early in breeding season, male may perform courtship feeding of female. Nesting begins remarkably early, during late winter, while breeding grounds still snow-covered. Nest site is in dense conifer, close to trunk at base of branch; usually fairly low, averaging about 15' above the ground. Nest (built by both sexes) is a bulky flat cup of twigs, lichens, strips of bark, and caterpillar webs, lined with softer materials including animal hair and feathers.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

No regular migration. Birds in high mountains of west rarely move to lower elevations in winter. On rare occasions, small invasions of Gray Jays will move a short distance out of boreal forest in winter.

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Migration

No regular migration. Birds in high mountains of west rarely move to lower elevations in winter. On rare occasions, small invasions of Gray Jays will move a short distance out of boreal forest in winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Whee-ah, chuck-chuck; also scolds, screams, and whistles.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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