Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
Keep up to date with Canada's Jay

Today’s blog post comes from bird researchers Alex Sutton and Koley Freeman, PhD candidates at the University of Guelph.

In the world of Canadian Jays, winter means one thing: it’s breeding season!

Canada jays are common in Algonquin Provincial Park. Following a 55-year tradition, a dedicated team of researchers is monitoring the breeding pairs. This is the longest study of its kind in the world!

With each passing year, more is learned about the reproductive behavior and life history of these extraordinary birds.

Long-term monitoring

Each year, researchers monitor breeding pairs of Canada jays as they build nests and raise their young.

Man uses tracking technology to track birdsAlex Sutton tracks a tagged Canada jay using radio telemetry. Photo: Dan Strickland

The group is made up of volunteers and graduate students. The students are supervised by Dan Strickland, a retired park chief naturalist, and Drs. Ryan Norris and Amy Newman of the University of Guelph.

Unfortunately, over the past three decades, there has been a more than 50% decline in Canada jays in the Algonquin study area. We suspect that fall weather conditions, such as rising temperatures and freeze-thaw events, are damaging perishable food stores.

Breeding pairs depend on these food caches to survive through the winter and to feed their young at the end of winter. Ongoing research continues to investigate the causes of population decline in Algonquin.

Sibling rivalry

Chicks receive a unique combination of colored leg bands each year. The bands help monitor reproductive success and allow researchers to follow individuals throughout their lives.

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Bird with leg band rests on handA one-year-old Canada jay with a “backpack” with a radio transmitter. Note that only the transmitter’s wire antennas can be seen on this individual. Photo: Mark Peck

Once these chicks leave the nest, they will remain in their home territory, moving as a family unit. But they don’t stay a happy family for long.

After about six weeks, the siblings will begin to fight with each other. This leads to a single dominant juvenile remaining, while its siblings are forced to abandon the territory. This means that only one calf each year will earn the right to stay with its parents during the next winter.

Little is known about the expelled individuals. Although they have colorful bands and can be identified with binoculars, they are often never seen again.

A new study takes flight

Using observations of leg bands over the past 54 years, we determined that after expulsion, individuals could move up to 10 km from their home territory.

Scientist putting a band on a birdKoley Freeman equips a chick with a radio transmitter “backpack.” Photo: Dan Strickland

This means that birds could easily travel to inaccessible areas outside of the Highway 60 corridor, which is where the study area is located.

Advances in radio telemetry technology make it possible to track young people as they leave their home territories into the Algonquin interior. Miniature backpacks with radio tags are used to track the birds. Typically, all that is visible to an observer is a small wire running parallel to the bird’s tail.

Each backpack produces a signal at a unique frequency that can be picked up by specialized antennas. This allows us to track individuals from afar, even if the birds cannot be easily seen.

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Another benefit of using radio tags is that unique signals can be identified over great distances. This means that birds can be followed when they leave their home territory.

By land and air we always get our bird

We are using a combination of ground, canoe, and aerial telemetry to track individuals as they disperse across large areas of the park.

Algonquin aerial view collage in all seasons.Once a Canada jay has left its home territory, telemetry flights are used during the summer, fall, and early winter to track their dispersal as they move through Algonquin.

For the past two breeding seasons, radio-tagged jays have been tracked, providing new information about where they go once they leave their home territories.

Most individuals have moved into previously unmonitored nearby territories, but some have undertaken surprisingly long journeys.

Carry BOSL KOWR, For example. This interesting name comes from it being a young, banded bird. blue ohsee yesstandard in Ileft leg and pink ohsee whit on the rright leg. She moved more than 10 miles from her parents’ territory near Highway 60!

This year, we will once again deploy radio tags to monitor where Canada jays go as they move through the vast Algonquin wilderness. So if you see a Canada jay on Algonquin with a wire along its tail, you are looking at a young jay that is advancing our understanding of this unique species.

We would like to acknowledge the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry Climate Change Fund, and Ontario Parks for providing funding for this project.

Thanks to the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station for providing lodging and logistical support.

For more information on the Canada Jays, check out this post.