Although crows will always be my first corvid love, I am delighted to switch from the fascinating but macabre world of thanatology (death sciences) to the world of Canada jays (formally called gray jays).
Canada jays, known colloquially as Camp Robbers or Whiskey jacks*, are some of the smallest corvids, weighing in at only 2.5 ounces. Despite their admittedly adorable faces and fragile frames, these are among the toughest animals on the arctic tundra, comprising only a small number of birds that call this area home all year long. To survive the harsh winters, jays depend on food they cache (store) during the fall. Jays start breeding in late February, making them one of the earliest nesting songbirds in this area. Given the blankets of snow still suppressing the fresh fruit and insects they will gorge on come summer, their caches are crucial sources of food during the early breeding period for both adults and nestlings alike.
Sadly, in some parts of their range, jay populations are showing worrying signs of decline. Given that jays cache perishable food, it’s possible that these declines are linked to temperature fluctuations that promote faster degradation of their caches. In other words, the freezer is broken, the food is rotting, and there’s no grocery store with which to restock. With less food during the breeding season, fewer babies will make it to adulthood. If you want to learn more about this issue, check out this video featuring two of Denali’s permanent biologists and my new colleagues, Laura Philips and Emily Williams.
Before we can start getting to the heart of that hypothesis, however, there are fundamental knowledge gaps in the ecology of Denali’s Canada jays that need to be addressed, and that’s where my research comes in. By following and videotaping the foraging behaviors of jays, I hope to establish a better sense of what and where they cache food. With this knowledge in our arsenal, future projects can begin to score the decay of different foods under different temperature regimes or cache locations, relate different caching strategies to reproductive success, and explore many other important questions.
*Whiskey jack is an anglicized version of the indigenous Cree name for these animals, Wisakedjak. Other indigenous nations in the Algonquian language family have similar names.