Don't be afraid in the forest; it's probably just a gray jay

Curious birds are known to follow hikers for food
Gray jayPhoto by John J. Mosesso /life.nbii.gov

Have you ever had the feeling you were being watched or even followed when in the mountains? Sometimes on a hike or ski I catch the flicker of motion just over a rise. It's undoubtedly just a deer, but an active mind entertains other possibilities. I remind myself there is nothing to fear in the forest. Yet, there are those times when I sense something is there.

I once felt I had been followed for nearly a half-hour. I'm embarrassed when I feel the need to look over my shoulder, but I looked back once, twice, then a third time. I saw nothing more than the trees at each turn. Then there was a soft but unmistakable sound behind my head not three feet away.

Unnerving to say the least.

I turned quickly, and the source of my unease became obvious. A gray jay had landed on a limb, dislodging a tiny puff of snow. It asked politely whether I could spare a crumb. Once the adrenaline dissipated, I smiled. I should have known. Such behavior is common for these trusting birds, and they have approached me silently on many occasions.

Gray jays are smaller than most jays. The body is gray and the head is white with a dark brown crown extending from eye to eye around the back of the head. Juveniles are entirely sooty black until their first molt in late summer.

As expected, it was not just one bird but an entire family. They remain together through the winter until the start of the breeding season. Gray jays survive winter by being inquisitive. Any sound might mean a meal. A falling tree may reveal grubs or ants among the splinters. A scavenger may lead to a winter-kill deer. A skier may leave crumbs.

Gray jays are quiet thieves, infuriating many a camper or hunter. They have justly earned many names, including "camp robber," "meat bird," "grease bird" and "whisky jack." The latter is a corruption of a American Indian name for the bird, and I'm sure must refer to their larcenous habits. Hunters, loggers and campers often speak of their special fondness for three items: baked beans, oatmeal and, of all things, soap.

In addition to investigating every sound in the forest for a meal, resident birds cache seeds and other foods in numerous hiding places for later use, including the lean days of winter.

They are birds of the north woods from Alaska to Newfoundland. Their range extends south out of Canada into the Rockies, the Cascades and among the deep forests along the coast. They barely enter California. Their absence in the Sierra Nevada is curious. There appears to be abundant habitat for them.

In our area, gray jays are common in the white fir forests above 4,000 feet in the Cascades. They are less common in the Siskiyous. Steller's jays join them in the summer but retreat to the lower forests in winter. Only the gray jay remains to monitor winter activities.

The next time you find yourself in the high country, remember: not everything following you is dangerous, and keep a close eye on your soap.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.


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