Johnston Canyon, Bannf, Canada 2008

The deceptively cute Gray Jay is one of the most intrepid birds in North America, living in northern forests year-round and rearing chicks in the dark of winter. Highly curious and always on the lookout for food, Gray Jays eat just about anything, from berries to small animals. They may even land on your hand to grab a raisin or peanut. During summer they hoard food in trees to sustain themselves through bleak winters.

Size & Shape
Gray Jays are stocky, fairly large songbirds with short, stout bills. They have round heads and long tails, with broad, rounded wings.

Color Pattern
Gray Jays are dark gray above and light gray below, with black on the back of the head forming a partial hood. Juveniles are grayish black overall, and usually show a pale gape at the base of the bill.

Gray Jays are typically in small groups. They fly in quiet swoops, generally holding their wings below the horizontal. While they have a large variety of vocalizations including hoots and chatters, they are less noisy overall than other jays. Gray Jays have very broad diets, eating anything from berries to carrion to handouts from hikers.

Gray Jays live in evergreen (especially spruce) and mixed evergreen-deciduous forest across the boreal forest of the northern United States and Canada, as well as in high mountain ranges of the West.

Cool Facts

  • The Gray Jay stores large quantities of food for later use. It uses sticky saliva to glue small food items to tree branches above the height of the eventual snow line. It may be this food storage behavior that allows the jay to live so far north throughout the winter.
  • The Gray Jay nests during late winter, incubating its eggs in temperatures that may drop below minus 20°F. Oddly, it does not attempt a second brood in the May–June breeding period used by other birds in boreal habitats, even though those warmer conditions would appear to be more favorable.
  • Paleontologists have recovered the fragmented fossils of two Gray Jays from the late Pleistocene (about 18,000 years ago), along with other boreal birds and mammals, at a cave in central Tennessee, indicating a much colder climate at that time than now.
  • The Gray Jay ranges across northern North America, and its close relative the Siberian Jay spans a similar swath of northern Eurasia. Together, they complete a ring around the Northern Hemisphere. The two species share the habit of using sticky saliva to attach food to crevices in trees.
  • A 2.5-ounce Gray Jay has to eat 47 calories (technically, kilocalories) per day, compared to a human’s daily diet of 2,000 kilocalories. Gray Jays take advantage of whatever food they can find. A Gray Jay was seen landing on the back of a live moose to eat blood-filled winter ticks. Another was observed tearing a baby bat away from its mother. Gray Jays may even attack injured larger animals.
  • The Gray Jay has incredibly thick, fluffy plumage that it puffs up in cold weather, enveloping its legs and feet. Even its nostrils are covered with feathers.
  • The oldest Gray Jay on record was at least 17 years, 2 months old. Banded in 1985, it was recaptured and re-released by a bird bander in Colorado in 2002.


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