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The endlessly entertaining gray jay

Gray jays stay in Minnesota and don’t migrate, but will sometimes make irruptions south of their range in the winter. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS Midwest Region. 1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

I once watched a ruffed grouse on an early November morning foraging for food within the thick understory of hazel and willow in a Kittson County aspen woodland.

The bird, unaware of me sitting in an elevated platform propped against a nearby tree, methodically went about filling its crop, leaving basically no leaf unturned and no hazel bush ignored.

It came as a surprise to me that the grouse appeared somewhat unaware of its immediate surroundings. Not once was I able to detect the grouse demonstrating the alertness I've come to expect from these typically wary species of bird. It behaved almost like a barnyard domestic chicken. I also thought that it would've been an easy meal for a predator, such as a fisher or goshawk, to have captured. Even so, I would suppose the bird was perhaps much more aware of potential danger than I gave it credit for.

The ruffed grouse shuffled about noisily in the leaves searching for green leaves, nuts, berries, and buds. I watched as the bird picked and pecked and consumed mouthfuls of tiny green leaves of some unidentifiable herbaceous plant. But what the grouse was most interested in were hazel buds — and lots of them.

Sometimes with nimbleness and at other times with curious awkwardness, the grouse stalked a reachable-from-the-ground hazel bud and leaped unexpectedly high to pluck a bud from a twig, while in other instances I saw him nearly topple to the ground after misjudging the stoutness of a particularly tempting limb, replete with buds for the taking.

But persistence generally pays off for everyone, even for a determined grouse. During the time I was able to watch the bird's entire, uninterrupted breakfast routine, I was also treated to what a grouse sometimes does after its crop is completely full: he takes a nap.

For five or ten minutes, I watched as the grouse "slept it off" until perhaps part of his foodstuffs had passed into his gizzard. With his feathers all puffed out and his eyes closed as he roosted on a branch near to the ground, the ruffed grouse looked as content as a grouse could be.

Another bird that I've had the fortune to observe on many occasions is the gray jay, sometimes called Canada jay. Gray jays are such interesting birds, especially when they are searching, gathering, caching, and eating food — and with the gray jay, nearly any food will do.

A seemingly fearless wild bird, the gray jay calmly glides underneath the forest canopy, often alighting on nearby perches to gaze curiously at human onlookers. Right before our eyes the gray jay will sometimes snatch food from our hands or, at the very least, give us a grand, up-close view of them. So different they are behaviorally from some of their fidgety relatives like the blue jay and Steller's jay.

Unique among jays and other members of the corvid family, the gray jay possesses special mucus-secreting glands on the sides of their beak that produces a sticky, saliva-like substance that is used to glue foodstuffs together. This enables the bird to clump and stick bonded morsels into and onto hiding spots throughout the forest.

During harsh winters the bird can then return to its many caches and feast on its sticky, globular creations.

This past early June during my latest canoe trip to the Boundary Waters, four gray jays frequented our encampment on Shell Lake. The foursome, which was comprised of parents and their two offspring, were intent on picking up scraps that sometimes fell off of our plates or cooking pots and pans. The two adults sometimes even fed their begging offspring, which looked ridiculous, given that the youngsters were fully grown and plenty capable.

There were times that I observed the adults flying off and weaving through the trees with morsels of food clutched tightly in their beaks. Continuously the youngsters would chase after the fleeing parent in apparent hope of begging or robbing their parent of the food item. Lots of vocalizing and sometimes fighting would invariably ensue. Indeed, there's never a dull moment whenever and wherever gray jays are encountered!

Everywhere throughout the northland, all of our feathered friends are busily foraging. Some are preparing themselves for soon-to-be migrations to warmer climes, while others are no doubt feeding hungry mouths of nestlings. In so doing, birds far and wide provide us with plenty of entertainment and education as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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