Monday, October 28, 2013
Our good friend and Algonquin Park researcher Dan Strickland has studied these birds for decades. For thirteen and a half years, there was a nesting pair in our Hidden Lake Bog who were part of that study. I didn't know they could live that long, but yes, they can!
Amazing little birds, these don't migrate. While the technique of staying home lets them avoid the perils of migration (most migratory birds rarely survive for more than five years and there is a 40 to50% mortality rate during migration. No wonder we are losing our song birds...) it brings other problems. The biggie is, what to eat come winter time? The answer comes from the birds habit of stashing food during the months of plenty to get them through the months of lean. Carefully coating each piece of food with saliva so it will stick in their hiding sites, the birds squirrel (jay?) away food in a wide variety of locations. It's amazing that they can find them again! Do you think YOU have that good a memory? I doubt it. So do the researchers. You can give it a try if you like, with this interactive Gray Jay Game, courtesy of the wonderful site, The Science Behind Algonquin Animals.
Jim and Sue sent along this beautiful photo, taken last week. One of this bird's most endearing traits is its willingness to come right to your hand, curious and unafraid and utterly charming. They are commonly called Whiskeyjacks, which was an adaptation given them by the early loggers of the Indian name for the birds: "Wisakajack," which means a mischevious spirit of the woods.
I'm trying to learn which bird this is -- when our bird was being studied here at Bondi, the birds were 'named' by the bands on their legs -- in this instance it is Pink over Orange Right, and Red over Silver Left, so it might be called POOR ROSL... I'll keep you posted if I'm close (or even, shock and awe, right!)
These birds nest in February and March, relying on their hidden food sources to raise the young. Which works well if the winters are cold. Global warming bringing warmer winters brings with it the risk of the food spoiling in the cache, and being of no use (even being toxic) to the birds. As we all know, if the fridge goes down, the food goes bad...
It's not all fun and games being a gray jay however. These birds need a very large territory to provide for a single pair -- about 150 hectares. That means that as the babies grow up, they have to find new territory, and a rather deadly harrassment game begins where the strongest bird tries to drive away the siblings so they must find new territory. Sadly, this often results in up to 80% mortality as the young birds try to find their way.
Algonquin Park is well-known among Ontario naturalists as being one of the best and most convenient places to see Gray Jays in the province but it is less certain how long this will be true in the future. Starting in the 1970s, Gray Jays have been slowly declining in Algonquin Park, with one or two territories going vacant almost every year. Originally, we think that virtually all the land along Highway 60 was occupied by Gray Jays but now very little is. The stretch of highway between Smoke Lake and the Hemlock Bluff Trail, for example, once cut through nine different Gray Jay territories but, in 1994, the last of them went vacant. Overall, fewer than half of the territories occupied in the 1970s are still occupied today. The worst losses have been in areas dominated by hardwood forests of Sugar Maple and the least attrition has occurred in boggy, lowland areas covered with Black Spruce.
It will be a great tragedy if we lose these cheerful and amazing birds from our Park, and our lives. We are all touched by the changes in the environment, even seemingly small changes have enormous and far reaching and long lasting repercussions.
This link will take you to the research on these beautiful birds in the Park.
Posted by Nancy Tapley at 8:44 PM