These pages of our website are mostly about K-Country critters we pay less attention to. But it’s hard not to pay attention to Canada Jays. Amazingly friendly and tolerant of people, these non-migratory, year-round residents will happily come join you in the wilderness just as you sit down for lunch and open your sandwiches. And then they will steal it – or at least try.
Their nickname “Camp Robber” is well earned. They are part of the Corvid family that includes ravens, bluejays and crows. These are all smart and sneaky birds. Canada Jays eat almost anything, from nuts to seeds to berries to insects to nestlings to carrion to even a mouse, if they could get one. Your sandwich is a no-brainer. They hoard food over the summer. Their saliva is sticky, and they use it to glue food to trees. They also store your sandwich in old woodpecker nests. Like their relative, the Clark’s Nutcracker, they readily remember where they store stuff.
You’ll almost always see them travelling in pairs, at least, and sometimes threes or fours. They are monogamous and mate for life, though will take a new mate if widowed. And by February, that pair have already mated, laid their eggs and have fledglings. This makes them earlier than most other nesters in Canada. The other birds that travel with a mating pair are usually offspring from last year. They help feed the fledglings by bringing back food from winter caches. Forest tent caterpillar cocoons are used to seal up holes in the nest and help insulate it, for winter is usually still upon us when they are nesting. Once the eggs are laid, the female stays and the other birds bring food. Once hatched, only the male feeds the family until the chicks fledge.
About their names…
They are a bird of many names. They have always been called “Whisky Jacks”, an Anglicisation of the Cree word “Wisakedjak”. This is the mythical life force figure or Manitou in Cree culture known as a benevolent trickster. They started being called “Canada Jays” – their Latin name is Perisorius canadensis — when they were first scientifically identified in the 1770’s. In 1948, the American Ornithological Society stripped them of their Canada Jay title; they were given the name Grey Jays. This decision was reversed in 2018. There are 9 identified subspecies, with the “Alberta Jay” subspecies (P. c. albescens) the most common in Kananaskis.
In 2016, Canadian Geographic held a poll and selected the Gray Jay to be the National Bird of Canada. Its range encompasses virtually the entire country where the boreal forest is, absent only from the grasslands of south-eastern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the southern portion of Ontario. It was selected because it reflected many Canadian attributes, including its curious, playful nature, its resilience, love of winter and pair-bonding behaviour, and its ingenuity. Kind of a little feathered version of us.
Meet more of the Critters of Kananaskis Country here!