The Beloved Canada Jay May Also Steal Your Heart
No matter the season, hikers familiar with the higher summits of the White Mountains, know there tends to be a rapid transition in climate zones in the region. From the warmer climbs of the surrounding valleys, the forest rises rapidly amongst sugar maples, birches, and other hardwoods. A determined hiker—before too long—reaches the damp, mossy boreal forest of spruce and balsam fir trees. In the warmer months, the air fills with the cleansing, aromatic scent of these conifers. The hiker may be aware of the changing forest and smells, but often unbeknownst is a change in the types of creatures that inhabit this evergreen forest high on the slopes.
Among the creatures a visitor to the boreal forest of our higher mountains may encounter is the gregarious “Canada Jay.” Also known as a “Gray Jay” or as a “whiskey Jack” back in the day, the Canada Jay usually first captures a hiker’s attention through a high squeaky, chattering whistle or one of many of the other sounds and chirps it emits. In addition to these many sounds, Canada Jays are also good mimics and can imitate many other bird sounds, such as that of a hawk.
If you happen to be munching on a lunch or snack, the Canada Jay is sure to swoop down on any morsel you drop. As such, these beautiful white and gray birds are often seen by lunching hikers in the White Mountain high country above 3,000 feet.
If you’re able to locate the source of these sounds, you might catch a glimpse of the Canada Jay. If you catch it in mid-flight, you’ll see a bird about the size of a blue jay gliding ever so slowly and with hardly a sound. It’s as if you were watching a newly fallen autumn leaf floating through the air. Then it will just as softly fall down onto a new perch, often a dead snag. This slow, soundless glide is a wonderful thing to watch, reminiscent of the way an owl glides and perches at night.
Photo by WiseguyCreative.com
The deceptively cute Canada Jay is one of the most intrepid birds in North America, living in the northern forests year-round and rearing chicks in the dark of winter, Highly curious and always on the lookout for food, Canada Jays eat just about anything, from berries to small animals. Although we prefer to keep them wild, they may even land on your hand to grab a raisin or peanut.
If you happen to be munching on a lunch or snack, the Canada Jay is sure to swoop down on any morsel you drop. As such, these beautiful white and gray birds are often seen by lunching hikers in the White Mountain high country above 3,000 feet. But don’t take the sighting of one for granted. The White Mountains of New Hampshire represent a tiny piece of the spruce and fir forest habitat that is much more common in northern Canada and Alaska. In fact, 73 percent of Canada Jays breed in the Canadian forest of spruce and fir. These spruce/fir forests are known as boreal forests, after Boreas, the Greek God of the north wind. In the eastern U.S., boreal forests are primarily found at the higher elevations of the White Mountains, Adirondack Mountains in New York, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and in the higher elevations and swamps and bogs of the northern Maine woods. Our White Mountains are but a small sliver of their typical Canadian habitat, which is found over a thousand miles to the far north. For this, we are very lucky to be able to see Canada Jays so far south. The boreal habitats of the White Mountains are truly island realms of scented evergreens and unique wildlife.
Anywhere within the boreal habitat of the White Mountains, usually found above 3,000 feet, is good to look for Canada Jays.
The first time I ever encountered a Canada Jay was as a college student hiking in the White Mountains for a weekend with my brother. I remember seeing the slightly unfamiliar birds and wondering if they were some kind of blue jay with the wrong color pattern. They do, after all, closely resemble a blue jay in size and general shape. But the ghostly colors of white and gray or charcoal are, in fact, good diagnostic markers. They are also cloaked in a very thick layer of downy feathers that leaves them well prepared for northern winters. This gives them a very fluffy appearance when seen up close. You won’t hear those familiar loud piercing cries that blue jays make either. Just squeaks and chattering sounds. The location where I saw my first Canada Jay was at the Zeacliff lookout, overlooking the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I’ve seen them in the same location several times since, as many hikers lunch at that wonderful vista, to the delight of the Canada Jay or “camp robber.” Please don’t feed them, though. It’s always a good idea to keep wildlife “wild” and not dependent on human handouts. Another spot I encounter them frequently is the junction of the Crawford Path and the Mizpah Cut-Off trail below Mount Pierce.
Canada Jays have many interesting characteristics that can make them quite endearing. They often travel around in family groups and will mate for life with the same partner. I can personally recall coming upon a family of Canada Jays in a large bog in the Adirondacks where there were juveniles and adults mixed together. The juveniles are a charcoal color all over and stand out amongst their more ghostly patterned parents.
Canada Jays breed and start building a nest in the dead of winter. At some point in February or March, a female will lay a clutch of two to five eggs. Only one of the juvenile birds will stick around all summer. The smaller bird or birds are eventually driven out by the larger bird who remains with the parents until it can find a suitable territory of its own. If you see a Canada Jay while hiking in the White Mountains, keep close alert—there may be a full flock coming your way.
Photo by Dan Strictland
Canada Jays have many interesting characteristics that can make them quite endearing. They often travel in family groups and will mate for life with the same partner.
Like most of the other corvid family members, which include jays, crows, ravens, and magpies, Canada Jays seem to have a relatively high level of intelligence. They show off some of that intelligence with their ability to store food intentionally and then come back for retrieval at a later date. They have extra sticky saliva that allows them to stick food morsels behind the platy bark of spruce trees for later retrieval. Perhaps they have great memories, as they have very low mortality rates in the harsh winter months. Although they are known to sometimes seek lower elevations in winter, I have personally seen Canada Jays at treeline in the middle of winter and have regularly run into them at close to 4,000 feet at that time of year. Anyone who has faced the harsh winds and cold of high elevations in winter can appreciate the hardiness of these birds!
Canada Jay: Perisoreus canadensis
Other Names for Canada Jays:
- Camp Robbers
- Gray Jays
- Whiskey Jacks
Canada Jays will eat a varied diet of insects and other invertebrates, small rodents, berries, and even bird eggs. They will also eat just about anything a hiker leaves behind, including meat. In fact, one of the old names for Canada Jays was “venison hawk.” This is a reference to their habit of raiding logging camps for morsels back in the days when lumberjacks lived out in the woods for weeks at a time in temporary logging camps. In all probability the origins of the name “camp robber” came from the vast timberlands that Canadian lumberjacks roamed; but if you hike the trails of the Pemigewasset Wilderness area within the White Mountain National Forest, you will traverse many areas of boreal forest suitable for Canada Jays while passing many remnants of long-gone logging days, including old logging camps. The Pemigewasset was known for its forest of tall, straight spruce trees, and although those forests are now second-growth and often have reverted back to fast-growing birch and other deciduous trees, the boreal landscape up high remains a great habitat to find the Canada Jay. Other boreal bird species of note one may encounter in the White Mountain’s boreal forest include the spruce grouse, saw-whet owl, Lincoln’s sparrow, black-backed woodpecker, blackpoll warbler, yellow-bellied flycatcher and the boreal chickadee. Bring a good field guide in your backpack, as encounters with these birds come at unexpected times!
Photo by WiseguyCreative.com
Three More Beautiful Boreal Birds
As you walk White Mountain trails above 3,000 feet, you may encounter other boreal birds besides Canada Jays. One of the most exciting birds to come upon is the spruce grouse. When sighting this bird, you may be astounded by its seemingly tame behavior. You can slowly walk right up to the bird, and just when it seems as if you could reach out and touch it, it alights and flies away. Just a bit. An old name for the spruce grouse was “fool’s hen” in regard to its tame nature. The more common ruffed grouse flies away as if shot out of a cannon when an unsuspecting hiker rounds a trail bend. Unlike the ruffed grouse with its camouflage brown and beige feathers, a male spruce grouse has much darker feathers and a prominent red brow over its eye.
The black-backed woodpecker male has a distinctive yellow cap on its head that distinguishes it from all other common woodpeckers, along with a solid black back. It’s our only strictly boreal species of woodpecker.
(The three-toed woodpecker looks similar, but is only found in far northern Maine with rare exceptions.) They are usually found picking for food under the bark of a dead spruce or fir tree snag. If you see a black woodpecker with a yellow cap, you can be sure it’s a black-backed.
Another distinctive boreal species you may come across is the boreal chickadee. If like most folks, you’re familiar with the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” call of the familiar black-capped chickadee, you may recognize a call that sounds similar but a little off, like a chickadee with a head cold perhaps. Indeed, the boreal chickadee has the same basic call as a chickadee, just with a very nasal tone. The cap is brown instead of black, as well; another very important diagnostic difference. These are true birds of northern climes and their nasal tones may well scold your passing even on a winter day up in the high country.
Anywhere within the boreal habitat of the White Mountains, usually found above 3,000 feet, is good to look for Canada Jays. This habitat of our highest mountains will reward your climbing efforts in many ways—through the wonderful smell of balsam fir and spruce, occasional vistas of mountains from outlooks, and perhaps if you’re lucky and patient, with a look at that beautiful flyer on silent wings known as the Canada Jay.
Tin Mountain Info and Events
Tin Mountain Info and Events
Tin Mountain Conservation Center (TMCC) offers environmental education programs for school children, adults, and families that foster greater awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the natural environment.
Programs, camps, and trails are offered at their 228-acre Field Station in Jackson as well as the Nature Learning Center in Albany, NH, which also serves as headquarters.
Throughout the calendar school year, Tin Mountain provides environmental learning programs tailored to the curricula of participating schools. Last year, 6,000 students and teachers in 17 schools in NH and ME participated in TMCC activities.
Summer camps in four locations serve hundreds of children. While younger children enjoy day camps, older campers enjoy a variety of week-long biking, hiking, and canoe adventures.
For adults and families, TMCC offers Community Nature Programs—a series of slide shows, hikes, lectures, and field trips featuring local natural history experts. Program fees, grants, membership fees, fund drives, and a growing endowment, managed by the New Hampshire Charitable Trust, support Tin Mountain.
Tin Mountain Conservation Center
1245 Bald Hill Road, Albany, NH
(603) 447-6991 • www.tinmountain.org
2020 Events • Please check online for updates
- Film Screening: More Than Honey
- Monday, January 6, 7 p.m.
- Thursday, January 16, 7 p.m.
- Boreal Birds Field Program
- Saturday, January 18, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- Meet at Grants Shop ‘n Save, 9 US-301, Glen, NH
- Youth Art Program: Wildlife Sketching
- Saturday, 18, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
- Life Below the Ice
- Thursday, January 23, 7 p.m.
- Winter Tracking
- Classroom session: Thursday, February 6, 7 p.m.
- Field session: Saturday, February 8, 9 to 11 a.m.
- New Hampshire’s Declining Bird Population
- Thursday, February 13, 7 p.m.
- Family Snowshoe
- Saturday, February 15, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Unless another location is specified, all above programs will be held at the Nature Learning Center, Tin Mountain, Bald Hill Road, Albany, NH.
Matt Maloney is a teacher naturalist at Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, New Hampshire. Tin Mountain Conservation Center (TMCC) offers environmental education programs for school children, adults, and families that foster greater awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the natural environment.
Catch this article in the Winter 2019/20 printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region.