Monday, October 4, 2010

Sticky Spit

Grey Jays -- Umpqua National Forest, Oregon

We came up to high Cascades hoping to photograph chickarees and have been side tracked by grey jays. Each species of bird has its own character. Ravens are bold, eagles majestic, hummingbirds brazen, and grey jays are sweet. Their feathers are a medley of soft grays ranging from nearly white to nearly black; big dark eyes. Their voice is soft and their flight is surprisingly quiet. They float from tree to tree like spirits in the forest.

A family of six gray jays have joined us for lunch. Dale is being a toadie and eating all his sandwich; while I, soft hearted person that I am, am letting them have the lion’s share of my bread. They are doing a fine job of living up to their nick name, “camp robber.” As I toss tidbits of bread they keep eyeing the whole sandwich. I’d better guard it carefully.

The six camp robbers and I have finished my sandwich and I have no more bread. Ah! They like cheese. They seem even more excited by cheese offerings than bits of bread.

Wild grey jays are well known for feeding from human hands. Maybe I can convince one to come. They are cautious at first, landing on the short lodgepoles near me and on our car. One grabs! I hang onto my cheese and he veers off.

It doesn’t take long for the bravest to perch on my hand. Having one alight, ever so briefly, is not much more than a breath of air. Gentle. I let him have his cheese and off he goes.

Now that I’ve switched to cheese, the grey jays are making little gluttons of themselves. Well, maybe not. That suggests they are eating one piece after another. They aren’t. They are packing their throats with cheese to cache. I don’t offer enough with one piece for a throat full, but they hang out nearby and keep coming to me until they have packed their throats full.

I’m getting excited, hoping to see “sticky spit” – theirs, not mine. Grey jays live in the high country where snows fall deep and food becomes scarce. How do they cope? Clark’s nutcrackers (another corvid) solve the problem by caching thousands of pine nuts in windswept areas, sometimes miles from their source. Grey jays solve the problem by caching with sticky spit.

The first time we saw a grey jay goober our offering onto a twig of a lodgepole, we thought he just had a lot of saliva. It was about two years ago and we were parked right here. Later we read Berndt Heinrich’s book, “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival.” Grey jays have learned to store their food above ground, away from the deep snows to come. The jays gather food when it is plentiful and glue it onto tree branches! He explains that their spit quickly turns to glue when exposed to air.

Today none of the jays are caching near me. They fly off into the lodgepoles with their treasure. I do see a jay far out on a limb, busy at work; but I can’t tell for sure if he is foraging or caching. I like to think he is gluing my cheese to the branch with his sticky spit. Maybe a chickadee will come along and think, “Yum!”


  1. Dear Elva,
    Oh, so gorgeous the art work! How cute the photo is! Very interesting post with a nice sense of humor. Thank you!
    Kind regards, Sadami

  2. Great it when he sits on your hand...amazingly beautiful.

  3. What a hoot. I have shared my lunch with these little camp robbers. They are such a hansome bird. All neat and tidy with those pale grey feathers. Who can resist them? Love your story and the sketches.

  4. I have only been blessed to see a Grey Jay once they are magical. I can't imagine how awesome it would be to have one land on me. I love Berndt Heinrich’s books.

  5. Wonderful sketches and BEAUTIFUL info Elva! I know I don't comment often, but I'm an avid follower of your blog (in Google Reader) and in awe of your sketches and the information you supply! Beautiful work all over! Hugs