A cute and curious bird of northern North America, the Canada Jay (formerly the Gray Jay) will eat just about anything.
Canada Jays are stocky, fairly large songbirds with short, stout bills. They have round heads and long tails, with broad, rounded wings. Canada Jays have dark gray upperparts and light gray underparts, 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.
Canada Jays are fairly large songbirds, with a length of 9.8-11.4 inches (25-29 centimeters) and weigh 2.0-3.0 ounces (58-84 grams).
Regional DiffrencesCanada Jays in the Rocky Mountains are paler overall, showing more contrast between the dark head and pale face and underparts. Individuals in coastal areas are darker overall, especially on the head.
Canada 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. They are mainly resident (nonmigratory). In winter, Canada Jays seldom erupt southward, appearing in fairly large numbers outside of their normal range.
Canada Jays are omnivores, eating just about anything, sometimes taking advantage of human food. When foraging, the Canada Jay scans its surroundings from a succession of perches, each a short flight apart from one another. It will snap up flying insects in the air, wade in shallow water to capture invertebrates and amphibians, kill small mammals, raid the nests of other birds, and sometimes pursue small birds. To wrench off pieces, Canada Jays twist and tug. They store food year-round by producing special saliva from large glands and molding the food into a sticky blob, gluing it on trees. They seem to have a good success rate of remembering where they have stored food.
The male chooses the site after looking around in several suitable spots. He picks a site at low to moderate height, often choosing a tree close to the south-facing edge of a forest patch to take advantage of the extra warmth from sunlight. Both parents do the same nest-building activities, but the male does most of the work during the early stages. He starts by making a loose ball of plant material held together by cocoons from forest tent caterpillars. Then he and his mate add a donut of twigs above the ball, filling it in with finer plant material. After that, they line the cup with feathers or fur and mold it by pressing their bodies inside of it. The female helps more and more throughout the process, and by the end she may be contributing more than the male. It takes three weeks to finish the nest. The finished nest is 4 to 6 inches tall, with a cup about 2 inches deep and 3 inches across.
Canada Jays have one brood with 2-5 eggs in each per year. The eggs are smooth, pale greenish white or gray, flecked with dark olive to rusty dots. They have a length of 1.0-1.3 inches (2.5-3.4 centimeters) and a width of 0.7-0.9 inches (1.8-2.4 centimeters). Incubation period is 18-19 days and nesting period is 22-24 days. The hatchlings have their eyes closed, a pale bill with an egg tooth, and pale pink skin with sparse down feathers.
The Canada Jay usually flies slowly, flowing with its wings angled downward, but it is capable of fast, agile flight when escaping a predator or disputing territory with another jay.
Canada Jays roost close to the trunk of a full-bodied spruce, balsam fir, or other conifer tree, and often sunbathe on wind-protected perches.
They stay with their mates until one or both dies, and the members of a territorial pair rarely leave each other’s sides. The pair breeds in frigid conditions during February and March. In June, the biggest member of the brood kicks its siblings out of the parents’ territory, which it then uses as a safe refuge until a nearby territory becomes available. The displaced siblings go looking for unrelated adult pairs whose own nests have failed, in the hopes of adopting their own safe havens. If a young bird is still hanging around the following year, the breeding pair prevents it from approaching the nest, but the young bird may help feed the new chicks once they fledge.
Canada Jays use alarm calls, chattering, screaming, and mobbing when hawks, owls, or crows approach. They aren't scared of humans, particularly when human food is involved.
Canada Jays sing a “whisper song,” a series of soft melodious notes interrupted with quiet clicks, lasting up to a minute. Canada Jays have a wide array of calls from harsh chatters to clear whistles, though they are much less vocal than other jays and crows. They can imitate the calls of their predators. This mimicry may confuse the predator or signal a threat to other Canada Jays. Other sounds include the snap their bills while chasing away intruders.
Canada Jays are common, but most of them live so far north that it’s hard to monitor their populations on a large scale. Recently, their populations appear to be stable with a possible small decline.
- In 2018, the American Ornithological Society voted to change the common name of the Gray Jay to Canada Jay.
- Oddly, Canada Jays do not attempt a second brood in the May–June breeding period used by other birds in frigid habitats, even though those warmer conditions would appear to be more favorable.
- Paleontologists have recovered the fragmented fossils of two Canada Jays from the late Pleistocene (about 18,000 years ago), along with other arctic birds and mammals, at a cave in central Tennessee, impying a much colder climate at that time than now.
- The Canada Jay ranges across northern North America, and its close relative the Siberian Jay spans a similar range across northern Eurasia. Together, they complete a ring around the Northern Hemisphere. The two species share similar habits of using sticky saliva to attach food to crevices in trees.
- A 2.5-ounce Canada has to eat 47 calories (technically kilocalories) per day, compared to a human’s daily diet of 2,000 kilocalories. Canada Jays take advantage of whatever food they can find. A Canada 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. They may even attack injured larger animals.
- The Canada Jay has very thick, fluffy plumage that it puffs up in cold weather, enveloping its legs and feet. Even its nostrils are covered with feathers.
- The oldest Canada Jay on record was at least 17 years and 2 months old. Banded in 1985, it was recaptured and re-released by a bird bander in Colorado in 2002.
- Canada Jays are also called Gray Jay, "camp robber," Arrendajo Canadiense (in Spanish), and Mésangeai du Canada (in French).
- See Birds Forever's profile.