In summer and fall, a busy Canada jay will find and cache tens of thousands of food items to sustain it through winter. (Photo: Pchoui/iStock)
But nothing happens without its fair share of familial drama. Canada jays, which mate for life, produce two to five eggs each season, but only one of these nestlings will remain with the parents beyond their first spring. Intense rivalry ensues as soon as the chicks become independent and culminates in the dominant sibling kicking its brothers and sisters out of the parents’ territory. The displaced siblings must find a new territory, while the dominant sibling wins the right to remain with its parents for the coming winter. There has yet to be a family novel written about the Canada jay’s domestic intrigues, but I have no doubt it will be a great one.
“This fluffball of a bird is one of our hardiest, most intrepid species, and the official winner of the recommendation to become the National Bird of Canada.”
Mischievous, inquisitive, fearless, it’s no wonder these birds have strong narrative potential. The Canada jay’s crafty nature and bold behaviour often invites comparisons with the Cree benevolent trickster and shapeshifter figure, Wisakedjak, although the names are etymologically distinct. Appearing in Anishinaabe stories, Gwiingwiishi discourages pettiness among people in favour of resilience, courage and empathy. In American folklore, in the guise of a “gorbey,” the bird has karmic properties — it is believed to be the soul of a deceased woodsman, and anybody who harms a gorbey will be subject to the same harm.
But though the feisty personality of the Canada jay can withstand many a thorny situation, it’s no match for climate warming, and the birds at the southern edge of their territory are in trouble. Warming temperatures and autumnal freeze-thaws are devastating news for the jays’ hoarding strategy, leading to the bacterial and fungal decay of their hidden food items. Strickland cautions that since the 1960s, the Canada jay population in Algonquin Provincial Park has decreased by two-thirds, with only one-third of their former territories occupied. “It’s a slow-motion train wreck,” says Strickland, “and the pipeline of young birds is drying up.” With fewer healthy young produced, the forecast for Canada jays in the park is dire: according to Strickland, there may be none left by the end of the century.
And yet they’re miraculous birds. A video of Koley Freeman, a PhD student at Ontario’s Guelph University, banding a young Canada jay chick shows the baby’s father swooping in without hesitation to feed his offspring while it’s in the researcher’s hand. “No other bird would do that,” says Strickland of their extreme tameness, “they live out their lives right in front of us.”
Slightly bigger than a robin, as fluffy as a kitten, fearless and daring, the Canada jay charms us — and compels us to do everything in our power to protect this uniquely Canadian bird.