Summit Outside: The mischievous camp robber
special to the daily
Ever been robbed by a “camp robber” or gray jay? Once when we were eating out on the deck of a restaurant at Copper Mountain,
a camp robber swooped down and picked a sandwich right out of the hands of a little kid. He let out a yell of surprise and consternation! I think it was a PBJ. I’ve had them eating trail mix out of my hand while sitting on the rocks by the waterfalls of McCullough Gulch. There are a lot of comical stories of gray jays helping themselves to human food and even nesting material. They have been known to swoop through an open window, and help themselves to appetizers. A lady wearing a decorative hat was out on a stroll and was startled by one appropriating for his own use (probably for nesting material), some of the ornaments on her hat.
Gray jays are quite creative with their nests and commonly use a collection of twigs and bark. The inside is lined with soft warm materials like deer, moose, snowshoe hare fur, and fine grasses. These soft materials are comfortable as well as insulating. Where do they get the fur lining? They often scavenge leftover carrion and will pick up clumps of hair or fur to take back to their nests. I’m envisioning the ultimate jay luxury: a mink-lined nest.
The fur-lined nests are completed in February, and eggs are laid the middle of March. This is a very cold time of the year so they must eat a lot of food and rely on their caches. These birds spend most of their time during the warmer months collecting food wherever they can find it, including swiping sandwiches. Gray jays have been seen landing on moose to remove and eat deer ticks. They commonly carry large food items to nearby trees to eat or process for storage. They hide excess food in caches, and before hiding the food they mix it with their sticky saliva, and then make small round pellets called a bolus. The sticky saliva adheres to anything it touches. What a clever trick! These pellets are eaten during the winter when food supplies are running low. The jays store the pellets in trees, under tufts of lichen and under pine needles. The key requirements for a jays’ habitat may be sufficiently cold temperatures to ensure successful storage of perishable food, and trees with bark with sufficiently pliable scales arranged in a configurations that allows them to wedge food items easily up into dry, concealed storage locations. Bark may contain antibacterial properties which assist in food preservation. This is why we see them at high altitude locations, frequently near the decks of ski lodges and restaurants, or as the name “camp robber” implies, at camp sites.
Gray jays typically breed at 2 years of age. Pairs are monogamous and remain together for their lifetime, but a male or female will find another mate following the disappearance or death of their partner. In early June, when the young are 55 to 65 days old, dominant juveniles forced their siblings to leave the natal area. Dominant juveniles, known as “stayers,” remained with their parents, and “leavers” left the natal territory to join an unrelated pair who failed to breed. The role of “stayers” is to retrieve caches and bring food to younger siblings. Jays have been known to live as long as 14 years, and food-storing birds such as the gray jay may live longer than other species because of this adaptation.
These bold, clever birds have inspired a long list of colloquial names besides “camp robber” including, “lumber jack,” “meat-bird,” “venison-hawk,” “moose-bird,” “gorby” and “whiskey jack.” That last moniker has nothing to do with the alcoholic brew but is derived from a name of a mischievous prankster prominent in Algonquian mythology called “wiskedjak” or some close variation.
Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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