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The Naturalist and the Lovable, So Good, Very Bold Jay

Canada jays thrive in the cold. The life’s work of one biologist gives us clues as to how they’ll fare in a hotter world.

Brian Payton 28 Dec 2023The Tyee

Brian Payton is the award-winning author of Shadow of the Bear, The Ice Passage and the national bestselling novel The Wind Is Not a River. He lives on Vancouver Island.

A bird descends through the falling snow above the mountains of Vancouver Island. Its plumage is a near perfect match of the leaden clouds above. About the size of an American robin, the Canada jay alights on a branch and fixes its gaze on the pair of humans standing in snowshoes below.

One of them, 81-year-old ornithologist Dan Strickland, has removed his glove in the late-winter cold. He repeats a series of squeaks made by loudly kissing the back of his hand. Soon, several more jays arrive. In less than two minutes, the first wild bird perches on his hand.

“It’s Will Koser,” Strickland declares, introducing the dominant male who rules this stunted patch of subalpine forest. All around, dark boughs of hemlock and cedar are heavy with snow and fringed in sage-coloured shocks of witch’s hair lichen. Located near a ski lodge at the edge of Strathcona Park, this is prime real estate for Canada jays. The bird cocks his head and studies Strickland before snatching the crust of bread pinned beneath his thumb.

This is not Will Koser’s first encounter with baked goods; people have been feeding him and his forebears for untold generations. I was taught not to feed human food to wild birds, but Canada jays are a special case. They have a unique feeding strategy, and Strickland’s research has found that these occasional, supplemental treats may even help Canada jays raise more and healthier chicks.

This jay’s name, recorded in the data as WLKOSR, is an acronym for the colour combination of the three bands on his legs. He is a member of the corvid family, which also includes ravens, crows and magpies — all extremely intelligent birds. They have a brain-to-body ratio that is equivalent to dolphins and chimpanzees and almost rivals humans.

Unlike their fellow corvids, Canada jays have become remarkably bold. While other corvids patiently (or impatiently) wait for the cookie to drop, Canada jays swoop right in and take it from human fingers, much to the delight of skiers, hikers and researchers alike.

A light-skinned older man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a blue jacket feeds a Canada jay on his outstretched hand.
Dan Strickland is the world authority on Canada jays, which range across North America. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

Will Koser lingers on Strickland’s hand in expectation of more. This bird is both handsome and cute — and appears to know how to work it. Other corvids, such as ravens and crows, have outsized beaks used for bashing and hammering. Will Koser has a small bill and big, shiny eyes that give him a doe-eyed look that’s hard to refuse.

But he’s more than just a pretty face; he’s also the rugged type. Built to thrive in harsh northern winters, he can puff out his fluffy, smoke-coloured plumage to cover his legs and feet. Even his nostrils are feathered.

Little was known of Canada jays before Dan Strickland took an interest 50 years ago. At the time, only a few examples of their notoriously hard-to-find nests had ever been described. Now, Strickland is perhaps the world’s foremost authority. As a naturalist at Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, he studied the birds in his spare time until he retired in 2000. Since then, they’ve become his obsession.

On his list of unsolved mysteries is determining what distinguishes these Pacific Canada jays from other Canada jays, whether they are in fact a distinct species and if they, like their cousins in Algonquin Provincial Park, are in danger of becoming casualties of the climate crisis.

A Canada jay poses on a snowy branch.
A warming world threatens Canada jays in the southern ranges of their habitats. Photo by Saeedatun via Shutterstock.

It’s easy to fall for this dusky charmer, but there are countless other birds and animals to study. Why spend a lifetime on this one?

“A lot of wildlife biologists spend ages putting out traps for animals, then catch them, put radio collars on them and release them,” Strickland says. Those researchers get radio signals from animals who often flee at the sight of humans, or are active only at night. He, on the other hand, has for decades enjoyed intimate views of his subjects’ lives — all the rivalry, intrigue, courtship, mating and rearing of offspring.

After decades of research, Strickland admits that neither he nor his fellow researchers know why Canada jays tolerate such close contact with people. It’s a learned behaviour, but also an expression of their natural curiosity. Their tameness allows him to discover their nests and even permits him to gently lift nesting females to count their eggs. That intimacy — combined with their remarkable biology, behaviour and intelligence — captured his imagination early on and never let him go.

I first met Strickland last fall at a coffee shop near the beach, 1,000 metres below. He arrived sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with a Canada jay and drove off in a car with CAN JAY licence plates. With ruddy cheeks and a wry smile, he was full of facts and plans, and appeared both highly fit and focused. When I called to arrange this outing, just two weeks earlier, he answered my call while lying on a hospital gurney. While his symptoms turned out to be a false alarm, he’s had heart trouble in the past. Regardless, this is a critical time in the life cycle of Canada jays. Never mind the ceiling-high snowpack and today’s fresh flurries, it’s the start of nesting season. So Strickland is back up the mountain in search of birds and answers.

A sacred bird in many Cree communities

We humans define ourselves by our extraordinary mental powers — feats of memory among them. The Latin name we gave our species, Homo sapiens, translates as “wise man.” And yet, in our hyper-distracted modern lives, we fall victim to what is popularly known as refrigerator blindness, a common affliction defined in a (tongue-in-cheek) paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal as the “selective loss of visual acuity in association with a common foraging behaviour.”

Many of us have faced the seemingly impossible task of finding the peanut butter hidden behind the pickles. But it actually wasn’t hidden at all — we just overlooked it. For us, it’s a forgivable lapse, and easily rectified. Not so for Canada jays, who use boreal and subalpine forests like a massive refrigerator-freezer.

Canada jays don’t store their food at a single location, like the average half-cubic-metre North American fridge. They cache it in the innumerable trees covering a territory of 26 to 130 hectares, or 36 to 180 soccer fields. To see themselves through the winter, they will store just about anything, including spiders, berries, seeds and carrion, plus bits of bread, nuts and cheese procured from passing humans. Their survival, and that of their brood, depends on their formidable memory — and their capacity to understand thievery.

Corvids are aware that other birds may be watching where they cache their food. To avoid getting robbed, scrub jays, for example, employ highly elaborate tactics similar to a magician’s use of misdirection. They discreetly hide food in one location while pretending to hide it in numerous other places to draw the observer’s attention away from the real thing.

That kind of awareness requires a high level of perception, says psychologist Nicola Clayton, who founded the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of Cambridge in England. She shares Strickland’s fascination with corvids. One of the big ideas her team explores is mental time travel, the ability to recall the past or plan for the future, an ability we have long assumed is unique to humans. What this reveals, Clayton concludes, is that these jays can put themselves in the place of another individual and alter their behaviour based on what might happen in the future.

A pair of Canada jays on a cedar branch.
Known colloquially as whisky jacks, an anglicized version of the Cree name wîskicahk, Canada jays are a sacred bird to many Cree communities. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

Our prodigious brains can store vast amounts of information. London cab drivers, for example, must memorize the Knowledge, a set of famously gruelling exams covering the location of 25,000 city streets. Not bad, but a Canada jay can cache up to 1,000 food items per day — then remember and retrieve upward of 100,000 of them over the course of a season.

Well before western science arrived at these insights, people were aware of the exceptional qualities of corvids. These often loud and gregarious birds have played a significant role in human culture, serving as mythical and religious symbols. In parts of Europe, ravens are associated with the gods Apollo and Odin. In China, magpies are considered bringers of joy. In North America, among the Anishinaabe, the Canada jay is known as gwiingwiishi and is considered a life-giver, a trick-player and one of the smartest beings in Creation.

It is also a jay of many names.

Lawrence Martin, former Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, grew up in Moose Factory, Ontario, hearing stories from his Elders about wîskicahk, a Cree word anglicized as “whisky jack” — a name still in common use today.

“It’s a sacred bird in many Cree communities,” Martin says. “One of the stories is about the bird providing itself to the Cree people when they were near starvation. It is a storyteller. It comes to warn you when misfortune is headed your way.”

“When you’re out on the land, hunting moose or chasing caribou, wîskicahk is there,” Martin says. “It follows you and makes you believe — gives you confidence — in what you are doing.” It knows that the hunters will be successful and that it will get the scraps. “And when you’re lost in the bush, you’ll ask the wîskicahk, ‘Where am I?’ All of the sudden, it will appear,” Martin adds. “It flies to the top of the tree, and it always faces the wind. The wind usually comes from the west. And this helps you get your bearings straight.”

European settlers, generally less enamoured with corvids, bestowed at least 30 often undignified monikers on this brilliant and extraordinary bird: camp robber, moose bird, venison hawk and gorbey among them.

Also known as the Canada jay since at least the 1830s, it was renamed the rather lacklustre “grey jay” in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union, as the American Ornithological Society was then known. Strickland investigated why they had made the switch, found their arcane reasoning flawed and politely petitioned the august body to change it back. In 2018, the American Ornithological Society officially reinstated “Canada jay” as the accepted vernacular name of Perisoreus canadensis. Now, there’s a move afoot to have it declared Canada’s national bird.

Morphotype differences

Patches of blue appear between flurries in the sky above Vancouver Island. Strickland sets a determined pace downslope through the forest. Along the way, he explains that his mentor, Russell Rutter, was a self-taught naturalist who began a study of Canada jays in Algonquin Provincial Park back in 1964.

Rutter made important fundamental discoveries about the species, such as the fact that they are both territorial and long-lived. Strickland went on to show that Canada jays can live up to 16 years. After Rutter’s death in 1976, Strickland, who had completed a graduate degree on Canada jays, expanded Rutter’s work, resulting in what has become one of the longest-running studies of an individually marked bird population in the world. This has led to previously undocumented and perplexing findings about Canada jays.

Canada jays approach food placed on wire mesh on snowy ground. In the background, two people, one crouching and one standing, look on.
Strickland has studied Canada jays since the 1960s, mostly on his own time, even as he worked full time as a naturalist in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park before retiring in 2000 — when he promptly moved to Vancouver Island to study the population in Strathcona Park. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

It is an accepted principle of biology that animals time their breeding with a season of maximum food abundance in order to feed their young — typically the full flush of spring.

Not so Canada jays, which are highly adapted to living and nesting in temperatures as low as -30 C and relying on cached food. Breeding pairs often start building their nests in February and lay their eggs in March. Eggs hatch in early April, and the young leave the nest in late April or early May when the land is still covered in snow.

Strickland thinks that by hatching early, juvenile Canada jays get a head start on developing the foraging and caching skills they’ll need to make it through their first winter. Unencumbered parents can therefore start storing food early to see themselves through winter. Despite what seems especially harsh conditions, this late-winter nesting behaviour results in a high success rate.

Currently, the Canada jay species has three recognized morphotypes, a grouping defined mostly by habitat. These include the widespread boreal type, which lives in boreal forests across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland; the (as-yet-unstudied) Rocky Mountain type; and the Pacific type, found in subalpine forests along the Coast Mountains and the Cascade Range from northern California to British Columbia. Strickland has documented some curious and significant physical and behavioural differences distinguishing them.

Among the boreal type, once fledged and feeding itself, the dominant juvenile in a brood (often male) harasses its brothers and sisters and expels them from the natal territory. The challenge, Strickland says, “has been understanding, biologically, why would you kick out your brothers and sisters, who share half your genes, and consign them to an early death?” He suspects the dominant bird does this to continue living with and getting the exclusive benefit of its parents’ experience and protection. It also gets a look at where mom and dad hide their food, and a chance to pilfer it.

On the West Coast, sibling rivalry among Canada jays is a much more laid-back affair. Unlike their boreal cousins, Pacific Canada jays are sociable and live in territorial flocks comprising up to three unrelated mating pairs totalling 10 or more individuals. Instead of pushing out their siblings, they share a territory and establish a pecking order that dictates who gets first dibs on highly perishable food, such as carcasses. Strickland suspects this gregariousness is a response to the threat posed by local northern goshawks and other raptors, and the value of having many eyes watching for danger.

A map shows the range of Canada jays, which spans from the east coast of Canada to the west coast of Canada, and, in the west, down into the U.S.
Canada jays are divided into three morphotypes, a grouping defined mostly by habitat that ranges across North America. Map data by ArcGIS, range data by IUCN.

Pacific Canada jays also differ physically. Compared with the boreal type, they are slightly smaller, have a paler breast, have dorsal plumage with conspicuous white-shafted feathers and sport a more extensive dark crown patch. These unremarkable hues conceal yet another feat. It is an accepted rule that unless a bird moults, it can’t change its colour. Strickland, however, has shown that Pacific Canada jays commonly undergo a seasonal colour change from grey to brown without moulting, an apparent exception to this rule.

We come to a stop, and Strickland holds out another piece of bread. The No. 2 jay in this territory lands on his hand, only to be chased off by No. 1. As top male, Will Koser gets his way. He will mate only with the top-ranking female, and so it goes down the line, each bird aware of its place in the social hierarchy.

Pacific Canada jays are monogamous, often mating for life, but should the top male meet an untimely death, No. 2 will step up to take his place with the top female, and the other males will adjust up a notch in turn. The result is relative social harmony and the benefits of strength in numbers. Strickland is the first to study this population on Vancouver Island and has been collecting data since 2016. He knows of no one studying Pacific Canada jays anywhere else.

Long before his findings, in 1877, the Pacific type was proposed as a separate species and accepted as Perisoreus obscurus, or Oregon jay, until 1944, when it was folded back into the larger Canada jay species. Recent genetic studies add to Strickland’s research and provide new evidence suggesting this earlier hunch may have been correct, although “the jury is still out,” he says.

A Canada jay nest is just visible in an evergreen tree.
Canada jay nests are well hidden. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

“People don’t get as excited about subspecies,” Strickland explains. “But if you put this magic ‘species’ label on them, then oh my God, you know, we’ve got to protect them. We’ve got to save them. It’s a funny quirk, the way people think about species.”

As more birds arrive, I join Strickland in serving lunch. Will Koser is the first to land on my hand and claim his crust. He flies off to the branches above where Yosel Wober (YOSLWOBR) wags her tail feathers in expectation. He lands beside his mate, snuggles up and feeds her in a display of courtship feeding. These birds are ready to nest.

Climate change and ‘cache rot’

From the subarctic to the southern Rockies to the temperate Pacific coast, Canada jays are perfectly adapted to and utterly dependent upon the cold. Numerous species of birds cache their food, but Canada jays do it differently. Where, for example, blue jays store acorns and other rot-resistant seeds in the ground, Canada jays coat their highly perishable foods with saliva and store them well above the height of the anticipated snowpack. They do this in the bark of trees, such as black spruce and yellow cedar, which contains volatile resins that slow decay. They also cache their food in the lichens found on these trees; the lichens are known to have antibiotic properties. But in a hotter world, this ingenious cold-storage system is breaking down.

Strickland believes boreal Canada jays are suffering from “cache rot.” Basically, for every 10 C rise in temperature, chemical reactions double — as does bacterial decay. It’s analogous to stocking the freezer with enough groceries to see your family through the winter only to have the power go out. It’s too early to tell how this population of Pacific Canada jays is faring, but Strickland has gathered evidence of a two-thirds decline in Canada jays in Algonquin Provincial Park. Declines have also been reported in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and Maine, as well as on the lower edges of the species’ range in Colorado and Arizona.

It’s difficult to watch the subject of your life’s work suffer the effects of human-induced climate change. Worse still, Strickland says he doesn’t believe we will do anything meaningful to stop it.

“I think we’re in for really tough times and are starting to see it,” Strickland says. He points to human population growth as an intractable part of the problem. “Are you going to tell your kids that they can’t have kids? It’s like telling people not to breathe.”

What’s clear is that as climate change continues to threaten their cold-storage system, boreal Canada jay populations will eventually shift north.

“The trees are growing out into the tundra now, so they’ll be territorial gains at the top end. I don’t think the gains will be anywhere near as great as the losses in the south. But I think in 50 to 100 years from now, there still will be Canada jays.”

On Vancouver Island, Pacific Canada jays — the ones eating out of our hands — don’t have that option. “It’s to be predicted that, with warming temperatures, they’re going to be shoved farther and farther up the mountain,” Strickland says.

Amidst the setting sun, a Canada jay alights on a person’s outstretched hand.
Unlike ravens, crows and magpies, their fellow corvids, Canada jays have become remarkably bold over time. Photo by EB Adventure Photography via Shutterstock.

In other words, if habitat defines the animal, if geography is destiny, these birds have nowhere to go but up.

And yet, for all the challenges facing them, Canada jays continue to surprise. Strickland finds resonance with Richard Feynman’s book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, in which the Nobel Prize-winning physicist shares his infectious thirst for scientific knowledge.

“That’s the way I think about Canada jays,” Strickland says. “I’ve been lucky to have a chance to pry out a few of the secrets, or come up with reasonable explanations for otherwise inexplicable and astonishing behaviour.”

While Strickland vows to continue studying them for as long as he is able, succession is on his mind. Recently, two ecologists have joined his Canada jay research team, and a grad student will start fieldwork next spring. He also hopes his younger friend and longtime collaborator Ryan Norris, ecologist and associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, will continue his research here.

A light-skinned man wearing a blue jacket and wide-brimmed hat places cotton on a tree.
After five decades studying Canada jays, Strickland has a few tricks up his sleeve. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

We stop once again and Strickland reaches into his pocket. Sure enough, several birds swoop down to investigate, including Yosel Wober, fresh from her courtship feeding. As we brood over the future, she’s focused on more immediate concerns. This time, however, it isn’t bread Strickland pulls out — it’s fluffy cotton balls. These he places on a nearby branch, then stands back and observes.

‘This is magical’

A few weeks later, I follow up with Norris in Ontario. This apparent bait and switch with cotton balls also took him by surprise many years ago. He and Strickland have become close over the years, he says, fondly recalling the distinguished ornithologist reading bedtime stories to Norris’s children.

Canada jay research was never a part of Strickland’s job as park naturalist, Norris says. He did it in his off hours and has never been paid for this work. “And who starts a new long-term study in their mid-70s? I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this. Dan has always combined an amazing, almost childlike curiosity with extreme dedication and focus,” he says.

Norris confirms that while there are still plenty of Canada jays in the northern boreal forest, their decline in Algonquin Provincial Park is yet another result of “the real-time effects” of climate change. They have become a kind of ghost in the natural history literature of the park, he says. And as they disappear from the forest, their legacy lives on only in the data — and stories — they leave behind.

Norris recounts an outing, early in his career, much like the one I just had. One snowy day, Strickland took him deep into the forest of Algonquin Provincial Park to look for the nests of Canada jays. Although Norris had some experience searching for nests belonging to other bird species, he’d never looked for nests in winter.

And then Strickland did something Norris never considered — he offered them cotton. This is how he gets them to reveal the location of their well-hidden nests, which they line with the cosy material before laying their eggs. Strickland observes where they take his gift, records the nest’s location and revisits again and again to observe and document the family’s progress. He eventually bands the fledglings and follows their fortunes and those of succeeding generations.

A Canada jay perches on a branch with cotton in its mouth.
Canada jays look for cosy material to line their nest with before they lay eggs in March. Photo by Bennett Whitnell.

“And I went — holy — this is magical,” Norris declares. “I just couldn’t believe it. After that, I was hooked.” The young ecologist allowed himself to fall for it and has been studying the birds ever since.

Decades later, and some 3,000 kilometres away, Yosel Wober readily grabs the bait and leads Strickland to her nest.

Perhaps, knowing a trickster when she sees one, she has some secrets to share.


Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed until Jan. 2 to give our moderators a much-deserved break. See you in 2024!  [Tyee]

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