Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome back, Chel.
Anderson: Hi, Jay.
Now, we’re inching toward the month of March. Are there any birds nesting this early?
Anderson: Well, we’ve talked before about some early nesting birds and setting up territories and courting and building nests in some birds does begin this early. So, grey-horned owls we’ve talked about before, they’re about the earliest nester. We have boreal owls and saw-whet owls and even barred owls that are all on the early side, so getting into the swing of it as we get into March and head into the late winter. But, I think the bird we should talk about today is the grey jay, or Canada jay or several others—
Or whiskey jack or camp robber. Actually one of my favorite birds. To watch them fly and land is just an amazing sight.
Anderson: Yeah, they are really kind of an emblematic northern bird. They’re a bird of remote forests. They like remote places. They’re not a bird that you’re likely to see, you know, wander into town, typically. They like the deep forests and they’re beautiful, lovely birds. If people aren’t familiar with them, get out your bird book or go online and get a look at one. They’re about the size of a blue jay, but beautiful, elegant, lovely, grey, white and black, really with a sharp black eye. Very, very cool birds.
Is there a reason why they nest earlier? I mean, some of the other—they’re a corvid, right?
Anderson: Uh huh.
Do blue jays and crows and ravens?
Anderson: Well, ravens are another bird that we’ll talk about another time that are early, but not as early as grey jays or Canada jays or whiskey-jacks. Which name do you prefer?
I usually call them Canada jays or grey jays. They’re interchangeable. But, what I’m interested in is why do they start this early?
Anderson: Well, great question. One of the reasons that they start this early is because it gives their young a jump on developing over the course of the summer, so that they’re ready to go into the northern winter, which we’ve talked about in the case of other birds, too, you know. If you’re here right away, then, you know, you’ve got a jump on things, but this gives them a really big head start. But another really big important reason is that they have a very unique adaptation to surviving the extreme environment of the north, and that includes way farther north than we are. And that is that they rely in large part during the winter on food that they’ve cached over the summer. So, by getting this parenting thing out of the way earlier, that means that they can start earlier in the summer stashing food that they’re going to need for next year.
Where do they stash this stuff?
Anderson: Well, if you’ve been out and had a chance to interact with grey jays, you may have seen them in the summer. If they find a food source, maybe you’re actually trying to feed them something even at your campsite or at home, they will come to the food that you’re offering and that’s there that they found and they’ll take as much as they can, they’ll disappear but just briefly and then they’ll come back and they’ll make repeated trips like this. They’re taking it just a short ways away and stashing it briefly, temporary storage, someplace where they can get it out of sight of something else that might want it or in case you go back in and take the food with you. So, they’re putting in temporary storage. So, they move the food around, get it in that temporary storage, as much as they can, and then once they’re done collecting, then they go back and they take bites of the food, small bites of that food, and they work it in their mouths, in their beaks and they coat it with saliva and they form something, a little pellet basically, and these little pellets are called boli in the plural or a bolus, and those pellets are what they hide. They might hide it under a flake of bark or a tuft of lichen or in a little crevice, anywhere that they think it’s going to be out of sight of something else that might enjoy eating it as well, and it might consist of bits of fruit that they’ve found or insects or mushrooms or, you know, something that they’ve scavenged from carrion or leftovers or your compost pile. You name it, they’re omnivorous, and they cache them in a very dispersed way so they never put all their eggs in one basket. Some other critter might find it.
How do they find it again?
Anderson: Well, because they’re incredibly smart. They can find it. So, people have actually studied this and found that, number one, a grey jay can make up to a thousand caches in one day. So, that’s amazing enough, but then, yeah, how do they find them again? Well, they apparently do not use smell.
Well, no, otherwise somebody else would.
Anderson: Right, somebody else would. So, the saliva acts as a way of screening and, of course, visually they’re not visible because they’re hidden. They’re pretty certain based on these observations that the birds know where they are, and in the winter they really spend very little time looking for food. They pick a nice sheltered spot on a cold day, they get all fluffed up, and they spend a lot of time just being resting in a nice, insulated state, but they pick places, apparently, that are close to where they know their food is, because when the need arises when they get hungry, they typically only fly a short distance and they go right to it. So, they’re doing all this caching in the summer and, of course, eating along the way and so on, because their lives are going to depend on it and the lives of their fledglings that survive the summer, they’re religiously caching all along the way and remembering where they are and then once the natural food begins to diminish they’re going to keep looking for that and taking advantage of that, but they’re also going to be conserving their energy by being able to just kind of sit and be sheltered out of the wind under some nice cover, you know, as much of the time as possible in the proximity to where those stashes are. So, when they’re hiding their food, when their caching it in the summer, they’re very cautious to avoid anything watching them. So, that’s why they come across to us as very secretive. You know, even though they’re quite friendly and companionable and come up to see us and check out what we’re doing and whether we have anything that they might be interested in. Once they get something, they’re very secretive about it. There was a great article written in the January/February issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
I read that. Right, yes, I saw it.
Anderson: And that’s a great article for people to check out if they want to learn more, and, you know, there’s a lot more in there about their winter nests, what they look like and how, when eggs are laid, which is in mid- to late March, and also, really interesting information about their populations and questions about how they’re doing in our changing world.
Chel Anderson, botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand early nesting birds, particularly grey jays.
Anderson: My pleasure.
Photo courtesy of Calypso Orchid via Flickr.