“The early bird gets the worm” usually makes us think of robins.
But the real early riser is not Robin Red-Breast. He is the Canada Jay, also known as whiskeyjack or Gray Jay.
Master of the “staycation”
This northern bird is not a feathered friend in good weather and flies to the sunny south during the winter. Like the Blue Jay, its better-known cousin, the Canada Jay is Canadian to the core. This fluffy, black-capped bird endures the snow and cold in the “true north, strong and free.”
The Canada jay fluffs its feathers when it’s cold. They cover his legs and feet. Even their nostrils are covered in feathers.
At the end of February, with the promise of spring still missing for the groundhog, the American robin begins to dream of love. The Canada Jay is one step ahead. Most of them have already connected with the love of their life. Each happy couple has their own plot of land, a territory of 150 hectares where they will live out their days.
home Sweet Home
As migrating robins head north, Canada jays are already putting the finishing touches on a family-sized nest. It is cozy and comfortable, lined with cocoons and pieces of fur and feathers.
They usually choose a sheltered spot on the sunny south side of an evergreen tree, to take advantage of solar heating, of course.
“We are calm”
When migrating robins arrive in southern Ontario in early March, northern lovebirds already have three to five eggs.
Chicks hatch in early April, when the northern forests are covered in thigh-deep snow and the lakes are frozen. But the children stay warm, even in snow storms and temperatures of 30 degrees below zero, thanks to the mother’s body heat and the well-insulated nest.
Canada Jays typically live to be 10 years old (16 is the record in Algonquin)
The young have already developed their feathers and fly around the first week of May. They have left the nest before most migratory birds get home!
What’s for dinner?
There aren’t many worms to catch in the frigid months of March and April. So, what do these “early risers” live on? How do they feed their young?
Canada jays eat insects, spiders, berries and mushrooms. Pieces of meat torn from a dead animal. Eggs or baby birds torn from another bird’s nest. They even steal human food, earning them the nickname “camp thieves.”
When they find a good food source, they collect as much as possible, much more than they could ever eat!
Put it in the refrigerator.
Canada jays spend the late summer and fall storing food for the winter. But their supplies are not stored in a central location, like a hollow tree. These intelligent birds hide a pinch of mushroom here, a tasty piece of carrion there, in the corners of their 150 hectare territory.
The Canada jay is commonly known as “whiskeyjack”, which comes from the Cree and Algonquin languages (Wisakedjak in Algonquin, It has been a long time in believe)
But first, they put the food in their mouths to cover it with their sticky saliva. They stick these sticky bits behind flakes of bark, under lichens, between spruce needles, or in the fork of a tree. A bird can hide a thousand pieces of food a day.
Hide and seek
How do they find all those foods? Researchers believe it is from memory.
They have seen the Canada Jays in winter. These birds don’t waste time looking for food. They don’t smell it or find it. They sit on a branch and, when hunger strikes, they head straight to one of their hidden larders.
Goodbye little bird
Algonquin Provincial Park naturalists have monitored Canada jays since the 1960s. It is the oldest bird study in the world.
This Canada Jay is being banded. Researchers take measurements of the bird and place a small plastic tag on its ankle for future identification.
And they’ve noticed the park’s Canada jay population is slowly declining.
Less than half of the Canada jay territories identified in the 1970s are occupied today. And researchers think they know why: refrigerator failure.
No more freezing
Most of Canada Jay’s food is perishable. Thanks to climate change, winters are getting warmer. Stored food is frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed. Is your food going bad?
Fir Swamp Trail
Park naturalists have noted that the birds appear to be abandoning the hardwood territories and remaining in the black spruce swamp areas. Fir bark can make a better cooler. Naturalists believe it slows down decomposition. That’s good news for Canada Jay parents who have several hungry mouths to feed.
Canada jays live in all Canadian provinces and territories. Although summer campers in Algonquin may never notice one, they are hard to miss in the fall and winter.
We saw this Canada jay in Missinaibi Provincial Park, living within Canada’s vast boreal forest.
These charming ambassadors of winter are looking for people. With sharp, curious eyes, they greet hikers and skiers and follow them down the trail.
Canary in the coal mine
Bird lovers will soon be disappointed. The Canada jay is an indicator species (the coal mine canary) and the Algonquin is found at the southern end of its range. If climate change continues, this friendly park favorite could disappear from Algonquin forever.