birdwatchersdigest.com • MARCH/APRIL ’ 17 • BIRD WATCHER’S DIGEST 108
ski trails and around ski lodges,
picnic places, and road stops.
They will even sneak into packsacks to steal granola bars and
other snack food.
Gray jays have other interesting adaptations for dealing with
scarce food conditions in winter.
To avoid having the much larger,
more aggressive northern raven
steal its lunch, this small bird,
which weighs no more than a
fresh chicken egg, will use its feet
to try to carry a food item, such
as a dead mouse or songbird or
even a piece of bread weighing
as much as itself, into the nearby
trees for dismemberment and
But here is the really neat
adaptation for surviving in
snowy conditions. Gray jays have
large glands in their oral region
that contain sticky saliva for the
purpose of coating and impregnating individual chunks of food
being worked back and forth
in the mouth. The birds then
deposit the sticky food items
behind flakes of bark, under
tufts of lichen, or in coniferous
foliage or tree forks. On occasion, they might even jam a piece
of bark or lichen over a food
item to help conceal it.
Caching food is a big part of
a gray jay’s typical day, and they
spend over ninety-five percent
of the daylight hours doing it.
In Alaska, one bird made more
than a thousand caches in a
seventeen-hour summer’s day.
That’s at least one per minute!
Farther south, these jays do not
cache as much in summer, per-
haps because they do not need
as much stored food as in winter
or because the stored food does
not survive as well in the warmer
months farther south. Even
their cache sites are chosen with
care. More valuable food items
are not cached as far away from
their source but are hidden as
far away as possible from their
nearest neighbors. And because
gray jays are a caching species,
this implies that they must have
some sort of memory, at least for
short-term recovery. Studies with
captive gray jays have shown this
to be true. E T H A N
Gray jays cache food, including fruit.