“Here, read this.” The biologist slid a folded paper past his beer, where it came to rest next to my wine. My friend works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Since his bosses may think his idea is nuts, I’ll protect his identity and just make up a name: Wally.
The paper was from a scientific journal, The Canadian Field-Naturalist. It was titled “Gray Jays and Common Ravens as Predators of Winter Ticks,” and it dated back to 1989. The journal documented anecdotal evidence of ravens and jays eating engorged ticks that had fallen off moose. There were even a few observations of gray jays that landed on moose and possibly picked off ticks.
Maine has a winter tick problem. This tick species feeds primarily on moose, and an increase in the tick population has had a terrible effect on our moose. We may have to shoot more moose, just to starve the ticks.
Wally’s eyes brightened. Gray jays are members of the corvid family, which also includes crows and ravens. Corvids are among the most intelligent of birds. On a scale where Stephen Hawking was a ten and Congress is a zero, jays are about a six. All corvids can learn from each other.
Wally wondered, could gray jays be trained to eat ticks? In a controlled experiment where jays were given the choice between eating bread or a fat, juicy, engorged tick, the jays chose the tick every time. What would happen if you brought a stuffed moose into the woods, sprinkled some bread and engorged ticks on the haunches, and called in the jays? Would they learn to eat ticks off moose, and teach other to do it?
For the next several minutes, we debated the merits. Jays cache food, and the journal documented instances where jays hid ticks for later consumption. If jays stashed ticks all over the woods, wouldn’t that just make matters worse? Probably not. Separated from the moose, the ticks would likely freeze. If this new abundant food source caused a gray jay population explosion, would the extra jays deplete other songbirds by raiding nests all summer? Probably not. Corvids do raid nests, but their reputation is likely overrated. Would a live moose tolerate birds picking ticks off its back? The journal documented one moose getting annoyed and chasing off ravens that foraged too closely.
I had my own doubts about whether jays would be that easy to train, and whether other jays would learn from them. Gray jays are notorious for raiding picnic tables. Late last year, I stepped out of an outhouse on Harrington Lake along the Telos Road, and came face to face with a gray jay perched just three feet away. His inquisitive expression said, “When are you and I going to share breakfast?” But when I encounter jays away from cabins and campsites, they seem unaware that I might have food, and act oblivious when I toss a potato chip their way.
So last weekend I went into the woods to conduct experiments. I started with some jays that were not near campsites. I got their attention and threw some peanuts on the ground. They ignored me. Perhaps bread would be more noticeable, I thought. I had a croissant left over from breakfast, so I tore off a chunk and held it in my palm, arm outstretched. Among jays, this is universal sign language for “Look, I have food in my hand.”
They ignored me, darn it. That was a $3 croissant that I had just sacrificed for science! I picked up the crumbs and drove down the road a half mile, where another family of jays popped out of the woods. They watched as I threw the crumbs, and simply flew off, ignoring my offering. This happened several more times. Apparently, campsite jays don’t talk to logging road jays.
I picked up the now-soggy pieces of croissant and drove to the Ranger’s Cabin at Chamberlain Bridge where I knew the jays would be more welcoming. Three flew over immediately. I threw a morsel on the ground, and two jays raced each other to grab it. Moments later, they were eating out of my hand. Maybe I don’t need to train jays to find moose. Maybe I need to train moose to tromp through campsites. This might not end well.
More experimentation is needed. Or, at least that’s my excuse for heading back into the woods to play with moose and gray jays.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.