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Vail Daily column: A brazen and beaked thief

Lara Carlson
Curious Nature
Vail, CO Colorado

Wanted: A sandwich crust was stolen from a picnic site off of the Cross Creek trail last weekend. The perpetrator was about 12 inches long, primarily gray in color with a white forehead, and a dark gray cap. The thief escaped by flight. Reports of missing crackers, trail mix, and candy bars have been documented throughout the White River National Forest and may be connected to this robbery. In these reports, it is possible that multiple robbers were working together as a team. Victims described the perpetrators as potentially stalking the area prior to the thefts. Anyone with information about this crime should contact …

“Camp robbers” are birds that are often seen near hiking trails, chairlifts, and outdoor restaurants. Also known as gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis), these birds and their relatives have a reputation as pests. In reality, the members of the jay family are intelligent, curious and adaptable. They mimic hawk and woodpecker calls, store food, and actively interact with each other.

As omnivores and scavengers, gray jays eat anything from small rodents, nesting birds and frogs to berries and fruit. They do not migrate and stay within about a half mile of their nesting area. Gray jays store some of the food they collect during summer and fall for winter consumption by placing it between the bark on tree branches. Human food is also very enticing to gray jays. They are regular visitors to places where people eat outdoors. However we should not encourage their behavior by feeding our scraps.



Gray jays can live over 10 years in the wild and they are monogamous, staying with their mates throughout their lives. A pair of gray jays produces two to five eggs annually. After fledging, some of the young move away from the family while others stay with the parents for two to three years. Although this offspring tries to help feed and care for the younger siblings, the parents do not usually let the older birds near the nest. It is only after the younger birds have left the nest that they are allowed contact with their older siblings.

Gray jays are members of the corvid family of birds. In addition to being related to other local jays such as the Stellar’s jay, western scrub-jay and pinyon jay, they are also related to magpies, crows and ravens. Between using their beaks to hold and use tools and developing various calls to communicate, corvids are known for being extremely intelligent. Corvids’ boldness and trust of humans cause us to perceive them as pests. They boldly enter our space in search for food and perhaps to observe us as closely as they allow us to observe them. Even when chased out of a campsite, a corvid will sit on a nearby tree and wait for the right moment to return.



If you happen to see a gray jay eyeing your snacks this winter, make sure not to share because every time a bird gets food from people it reinforces the stealing behavior. Although there is not a law enforcement agency appointed to monitor the thievery of camp robbers, citizen action can help keep these intelligent birds from acting like pests when people protect their food.

Lara Carlson is the Avon in-school teacher at Walking Mountains Science Center (formerly Gore Range Natural Science School), where she teaches natural science to students at Avon Elementary School.


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