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Gray-colored birds visit feeders during winter

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

Reprinted from Jan. 6, 2010

It is winter again this week. Snowflakes have been in the air several times, but so far, we haven’t accumulated much, just added clean sheets to the snow bed that was already on the ground.
This is a good time of year to look for two birds in the high country, which are both dressed in the gray, white and black colors of winter. They are quite different and belong to two different families. They are both found regularly between 8,000 and 10,000 feet elevation. The easiest way to see both of these birds is at places where humans gather to have winter fun, and food is available, such as the picnic area at Echo Lake.
The first of these two birds is the gray jay, a smaller member of the jay family. It inhabits the spruce fir forests of Canada. They are sometimes called Canada jays, but they do come down into the 48 contiguous states along the Appalachian and Rocky mountains where the same coniferous forests occur.
These birds are exceptionally quiet for jays, and their call is quiet for jays. Their feathers are soft, so they make very little flight sound and can slip through the forest like silent gray ghosts. The native Indians of Canada call them the Wendigo bird and believe them to be the winter ghost, which follows them through the forest bringing starvation, poor health, death and other seasonal problems.
They follow people through the forest because they have learned not to be afraid of man, and they can often find tidbits of food around his campfires. Sometimes, they will even steal bacon out of your frying pan, and they will drop down into picnic campsites where they will gather up any bits of food thrown to them or dropped by accident. This has given them the colloquial name of camp robber in much of Canada.
Gray jays are not very colorful but are friendly and quiet. They have dark gray backs, lighter gray bellies and when fully mature, the adults have white heads with just a gray streak across the crown. The juveniles are all gray and darker, with less contrast between the back and belly.
As they come into adult plumage, they develop a white face and may remind you of an outsized chickadee. They have a long jay tail and a beak that is smaller than most jays.
In summer, go to almost any picnic area and toss out some oyster crackers or peanuts, and they will appear as if by magic. In fact, I am usually surprised by them for they seem to always come from behind you with little sound until they are about to land on your hand.
When they fly in, they sometimes have a whistled “whee” call that is soft and very unjay-like. They are delightful little moochers and will eat almost anything that is offered.
The second bird is the Clark’s nutcracker. It is a small gray crow and looks like a crow in shape. They have an all-gray body with black-and-white wings and tail. The white patch in the secondary wing features and the wide white stripes on the outer tail feathers are easily seen in flight.
They are too brazen and will often steal food and are sometimes called camp robbers by people who do not know the gray jay. They are unlike the jay as they make rather harsh raspy calls and are noisy birds, which you are likely to hear before you see them.
They can often be seen at Echo Lake flying across open areas or perched in the top of spruce trees. They have long, strong beaks shaped like crows and can pry open cones to obtain the seeds. They follow the coniferous cone crop and only dropped down in elevation when cones are scarce at higher elevations.
Only once in the 44 years we lived in Evergreen did we see them at our feeder. In the ‘70s, there were few cones above 8,000 feet, and they descended upon Evergreen feeders in such numbers that everyone had trouble keeping them supplied with suet. They usually nest between 8,000 and 10,000 feet and nest very early in the spring.
They are sometimes found incubating eggs with snow on their backs. They cache hundreds of seeds in late summer and fall, so they have a supply with which to feed their young, which need to be fed in early spring. To me, they are not as charming as the gray jay, but these two birds dominate the high country.