A Gray Jay enjoys the North Okanagan snow. (Harold Sellers photo)

Get Outdoors!: Strange encounters Part 2

Watch Whiskey Jacks, a.k.a Gray Jays, at Sovereign Lake

Roseanne Van Ee/Contributor

Years ago, when the only building at Sovereign Nordic Ski area was the little one-room log cabin, I spotted big ugly gobs on nearby trees.

Ugh! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I always revered the cross-country ski crowd as civilized. Then one lovely spring day as I was sitting on the deck, a lady tore her muffin into thumbnail sized pieces and placed them on the rail. Suddenly a sweet little Whisky-Jack swooped down, gobbled up a piece and immediately flew off to a nearby tree where it puked up the muffin with sticky saliva on a branch against the trunk. Another Whisky-Jack soon came and did the same thing in another tree. Ah, the gross mystery was solved.

These are boluses; the Whisky-Jack’s way of stashing large quantities of food for long winter survival. These omnivores also eat insects, eggs, small mammals, carrion, fungi, berries and seeds. The caches allow the jays to live in a snowy environment and to begin nesting early in February. Two to five light-green, speckled eggs are laid in March. Their young leave the nest in early May, when many migratory birds are just arriving. A pair mates for life and will defend a permanent territory year round.

Related: Get Outdoors! Snow sculptures and strange encounters

Related: Get Outdoors! It’s snow amazing

Whisky-Jacks (a.k.a Gray Jay, Canada Jay, Camp Robber and other names) are Canada’s national bird. They live year-round in wild spruce-fir mountain forests right across Canada and into the northern United States. A few live up at Sovereign. “Whisky-Jack” is an anglicized version of Wisakedjak, a prankster in Cree lore.

Like the raven, they are corvids, but smaller and cuter especially when they cock their heads from side to side. They are various shades of buff and gray with a white forehead, face and neck. They have short rounded wings with long tails and almost appear to fall down out of trees. Or they may silently swoop like an owl. Another tactic is they sail down from the top of one tree to the lower part of another and then hop spiralling upward from branch to branch. They’re often in small family groups or hang out with chickadees.

These friendly spirits are unusually tame for wilderness birds. They’re smart, brazen, inquisitive, attracted to people and are often heard before seen. The Whisky-Jack has a number of calls, whistles, and imitations in its repertoire. My favorite calls are its soft warbling chatter and its “wheee-ooo“ whispered whistle song. They can give a soft owl-like “who-who” or scolding “ack ack ack” or low “tchuk.”

However, we really shouldn’t feed wildlife our food. It can create dependence on us and over time they may become scrounging pests or problem wildlife. Their natural wild food sources are superior to our over-processed food anyhow. Better to be still and watch the birds. Binoculars help. Enjoy!

Want to see another strange encounter with birds closer to town?

Watch the tall, gorgeous Great Blue Herons (four-feet tall with a six-foot wingspan) court and nest high up in the old cottonwood trees on 24th St. across from the Big Box Outlet. Up to 80 of these long bill, long neck and long-legged shorebirds will return to their nests over the next few weeks after wintering at Swan, Otter, Duck, Wood and Echo Lakes. Take binoculars. They put on quite the show! Kids enjoy watching this too.

Roseanne enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Discover exciting and adventurous natural events, best trails, and wild places. Follow her on Facebook for more.


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