- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular, permanent resident and occasional, erratic fall migrant. The Gray Jay was uncommon during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Found across Canada from Labrador to British Columbia and southward in mountainous regions and forests of western North America to New Mexico and California. In the midwestern and northeastern United States, the species is restricted to the northern regions. Highest densities found in patches of northern Alberta, British Columbia, Labrador, Manitoba, and Ontario (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 by Partners in Flight.
Permanent resident, irruptive movements southward have been noted in some years.
Omnivorous, consuming arthropods, fruit, carrion, nestlings, and fungi.
Open nest, low to moderate height and usually placed in a coniferous tree near the trunk.
Roberts (1932) reported the Gray Jay as a “common summer resident in the more northern evergreen forests of the state.” He cited breeding activity at Mille Lacs (full-fledged young), Itasca Park (family parties, parents and young), and eastern Marshall County (young with parents), and reported several observations from St. Louis County, including the only documented nest with eggs. In St. Louis County he noted early nesting behavior: “February 22, 1898, building nest, snow still on the ground.” Other observations spanned from February to August; the later reports were primarily of family groups traveling together.
Years later, Green and Janssen (1975) described the Gray Jay’s distribution as primarily in the northeastern and north-central portions of the state. They reported confirmed nesting from 4 counties: Cook, Itasca, Lake of the Woods, and St. Louis.
A few years later, Janssen (1987) highlighted the fall irruptive movements of Gray Jays southward in Minnesota, such as one described by Roberts (1932) in 1929–1930, when many wandered south and stayed throughout the winter in the Twin Cities area. Janssen reported additional movements, which occurred in 1965–66, 1974, 1976–77, and 1984, and one of the largest movements, in 1986. Janssen reported confirmed nesting since 1970 in 11 counties, including 7 that had not been previously reported. They were in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Cook, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, and St. Louis Counties. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) then added nesting in Lake County since 1970, confirming nesting in all of the counties in the northeast and north-central regions.
The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) identified 369 breeding season locations of the Gray Jay during their intensive county surveys (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016). These locations substantiated the breeding locations previously identified in northeastern and north-central Minnesota. They also verified locations in northern Carlton County, west to northeastern Becker and Marshall Counties, and several locations in Roseau County. The distribution of the MBS’s breeding season locations corresponded well with the limits of the southern and western ranges in Minnesota outlined by both Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987).
Results of the MNBBA totaled 734 records. The overall distribution incorporated the same breeding range as noted in the previous accounts (Figure 2). Gray Jays were identified in 8.1% (385/4,737) of all surveyed blocks and in 8.3% (195/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). Confirmed nesting was reported from 96 blocks, with especially high concentrations from the northern tier of counties ranging from Lake of the Woods County to Cook County. Confirmed observations were all of fledged young or young being fed by adults. The confirmed nesting in southeastern Roseau County represented the first nesting record for that county. One probable nesting observation was made of a pair in southern Crow Wing County. This region has extensive black spruce and tamarack bog habitat. The species was not observed in Carlton County, which is adjacent to the northwestern-most county in Wisconsin where it has been confirmed nesting (Cutright et al. 2006).
Strickland and Ouellet (2011), in their review of the Gray Jay in North America, suggested only minor changes in its historical distribution. They cited retractions northward in the species’ range in Alberta, Michigan, Algonquin Park in Ontario, Quebec, and Wisconsin. Land clearing in Alberta in the early 1900s was mentioned as a cause. Roberts (1932) identified “two full-fledged young” at Mille Lacs, which may represent the most southerly observation of potential nesting in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the location is vague. Both Aitkin and Crow Wing Counties, where nesting has been confirmed, abut Mille Lacs Lake. As noted earlier, the areas west and north of Mille Lacs Lake have suitable bog habitat for this species. It is logical to conclude that there may have been some breeding range contractions in Minnesota in the southern and western margins, but documentation is lacking.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.