In the late 1970s somewhere in the wilds of Alexandria I saw a small group — three or four — of rumpled looking black and gray birds sitting in a birch tree in late summer. Alexandria is hilly to the point of mountainous with peaks exceeding 2,000 feet in elevation. That is, higher than Green Mountain in Claremont and another 20 miles further north. Alexandria is also eastward as well as north, and the mountains there are foothills to the White Mountains. This point is germane because Canada jays are well documented as living in the Whites. These black and gray birds in Alexandria were a brood of juvenile Canada jays, but they were a bit south of the southern limit drawn on some distribution maps for this species.
The distribution of the Canada jay extends across the vast boreal coniferous forest of North America from Alaska to Labrador, southward through the Rockies to Arizona and New Mexico and in the Cascade Range to northernmost California. In the east, however, the extent of its range is disputed. The range map on www.allaboutbirds.org/ is conservative and shows it as resident in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks (which I can confirm), very northern New Hampshire, and everywhere in Maine but the extreme southeast and the coast. The Sibley guide is more expansive, showing it throughout the Adirondacks, across the top halves of Vermont and New Hampshire and through all of Maine. “The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont” records it as nesting only in the far northeastern part of the Northeast Kingdom (I have just placed my order for a copy of “The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire”)
An interesting aspect of bird distribution is its fluidity. These are quite mobile creatures; they can fly (most of them) after all. Sibley acknowledges this fact by adding green dots to his range maps, which denote occurrences of breeding by a species outside its usual range. What is most important to birds is having something to eat, so their distribution is generally controlled by the presence of plant and animal species that provide them with enough nutrition to have the energy to lay eggs and raise the next generation of their kind.
Canada jays, also known as gray jays, are strongly associated with the coniferous forest. Their Vermont range exactly corresponds with the largest block in the state of that vegetation community. In fact, during the summer they eat a wide variety of insects, supplemented with small mammals and bird eggs. As the year advances they add seeds and berries to their diet. Not a narrow diet, but apparently made up insects and seeds of the coniferous forest.
They are also famously fond of human food and all sorts of human objects. Their nickname “camp robber” is a reference to their habit of making off with just about anything that one may leave lying around a tent site. This puts them firmly in the corvid family in terms of behavior, but their other nickname, “whiskey jack,” a corruption of their Algonquin name, apparently corrupted by loggers to suit the bird’s fearless personality and mischievous habits.
While Canada jays are uncommonly tame, they shy away from living near settled areas. You will encounter their bold presence if you are logger or a hiker trying to eat your lunch in the woods, but you are unlikely to see them at your backyard bird feeder.
The Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis) is nearly silent, another un-jay-like characteristic. Furthermore, they do not resemble any other jay and have been placed in a genus by themselves. The Steller’s jay looks like a blue jay partially dipped in ink. The scrub jays and Mexican jay are clear variations on a theme. You can even see why the green and brown jays share a genus, and can wonder why the pinyon jay and Clark’s nutcracker do not.
In contrast, the Canada jay resembles a chickadee that has been given growth hormones. It is nearly a foot long but has a large roundish head with a black crown and nape, white cheeks and a white forehead, and a stub of a beak. (Unlike boreal finches, they have no adaptations for breaking open cones.) The rest of the bird lives up to the gray jay name, being a darker gray above and a lighter shade below. Its plumage is uncharacteristically fluffy and fine, a reasonable adaptation to a cold climate but not shared with any other jay.
When we lived in the Adirondacks, we would often walk a rail trail that crosses a large bog dotted with copses of spruce and fir. The Bloomingdale bog covered several square miles and was at nearly 1,600 feet. Someone maintained a feeding station in a spruce grove about a half mile into the bog. This is the only place we saw Canada jays. They would begin approaching us about 100 yards before we reached the platform feeder, obviously looking for a handout. Like chickadees, Canada jays will actually land on your hand if you stretch it out to them. It was astonishing how light they were.
But we never fed them and feeding them is actually not something you should do. A 2015 post at the outdoors website sectionhiker.com explained why this is so. An enlightened hiker called Philip Werner took some fetching photographs of a bird in the White Mountains and discouraged his readers from feeding them. He got a supportive comment from a park ranger from the Pacific Northwest who noted:
“Gray jays… are highly aggressive birds that prey on more timid smaller birds such as warblers. When we feed gray jays, we encourage them to congregate in those areas and scare away those more timid birds. Essentially altering the biodiversity of that ecosystem.”
I have to say, we didn’t see very many other birds (except chickadees, who are surprisingly tough) near that bird feeder in the Adirondack bog.