It is nesting season for the Gray Jays. These iconic and truly beautifully enchanting birds are being hard pressed by global warming. Because they nest in winter --in February and March in fact -- their nestlings are hatched in the less than balmy weather in March and April. There isn't much food around. Forever the jays have gotten around this by stashing food for the winter months. They are extremely good at this, and at remembering just where they have hidden the collected food. The problem is, they rely on the winter being cold to ensure that the 'refrigerator' is working, and the food doesn't spoil. Warm wet winters can cause the food to become moldy, and not only unusable, but toxic with botulism, killing the nestlings.
Dan Strickland has been studying these birds in Algonquin Park for decades. For thirteen and a half years there was a nesting pair in our Hidden Lake Bog. Very sadly, she was killed on her nest several years ago, and the male vanished from the bog. The territory remains empty.
Philip Childs got this photo recently of one of the female jays that is living at the SW territory of the airport in Algonquin Park. The birds are banded -- and the bands can be easily read. Each is named by the band. Our jay was called POOLTOSR, which stood for Purple over Orange Left leg; Blue over Standard Right.
This little beauty, cheekily ignoring the sign (as most jays do) is GOSLWOKR. Dk. Green over Standard Left; White over Pink Right. She is three years old. May she live for at least another ten, and bring many more of these fabulous birds to live in the Park.
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.
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. 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.
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.