Creatures vs. climate: The Canada jay

The Canada jay stores food in trees for the winter, but more frequent thaws and higher average temperatures are spoiling its reserves — and harming the species
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on August 7, 2018
A Canada jay.
Researchers have been studying Algonquin Provincial Park’s Canada jay population for more than 40 years. (iStock.com/SeventhDayPhotography)

The Canada jay is one of Algonquin Provincial Park’s most charismatic species. Late in the season, the birds can be fed by hand as they rush to stock their winter food stores.

Also known as the grey jay or whisky jack, the bird collects such treasures as berries, insects, and morsels of meat and then hides them in crevices in trees.

“They’re generalists, so they will store anything but nuts. They’ll store perishable things — meat from carcasses or a vertebrate they might catch themselves, berries, mushrooms, a lot of insects,” says Ryan Norris, director of the University of Guelph’s Norris Lab.

But the changing climate means more frequent thaws — and those can harm the food caches of the Canada jay, a northern species whose range stretches across the boreal forest and north to the tree line.

Researchers including Norris and naturalist Dan Strickland have been studying the population in Algonquin Park for more than 40 years, and they’ve seen a precipitous decline: 50 per cent since the 1970s. The park is at the southern portion of the bird’s range, so the falling numbers are not the result of the range having expanded farther northward.

The span of the Algonquin Park study has allowed researchers to observe long-term trends in the dynamics of the population and to determine how warming weather is affecting the species.

Because Algonquin Park is at the southern end of the Canada jay’s range, the effects of climate change will be most immediately visible there — it’s still cold enough in the north for now for the birds to store their food.

Researchers tested the effects of the changing climate using dummy caches of food, attaching bundles containing mealworms and raisins to the sides of trees near Cochrane, Algonquin, and Guelph, which is south of the Canada jay’s range. When the caches were collected five months later, researchers found that those from the north had retained more of their nutritional value than those from Algonquin and Guelph.

The Canada jay relies on such stores not just for survival but also for mating — lower-quality food could lead to reduced reproductive success for the species.

“Will a changing climate lead to the extinction of Canada jays in Algonquin? Eventually, it will,” says Norris. “I don't know how long it will be, but I would think that eventually there will not be any Canada jays in Algonquin Park.”

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