Today, Whiskey Jack is known officially by the terribly commonplace common name of Gray Jay. In common name parlance, “Gray Jay” is a step down from “Canada Jay,” the common name by which Audubon and every other birder knew this bird until some committee recently lost all sense of historical place. I have no doubt that our good neighbors to the north ignore the committee and continue to call this bird by their country’s name.
The Gray Jay is a Corvid (Family: Corvidae), a relative of crows, jays, and magpies. Like the other members of its family, it is omnivorous, intelligent, and opportunistic as it makes its living in an often harsh and hostile climate. Perisoreus canadensis (“Canada” has been retained in the scientific name) has only two relatives in its genus, the Siberian Jay of northern Eurasian boreal forests and the Sichuan Jay of Szechuan Province in China.
Like so many of the Corvids, Gray Jays have become the source of myth and legend. You might think that “Whiskey Jack” is a name bestowed by hard drinking northern lumbermen, memorializing their source of solace during the harsh winters. In fact, Whiskey Jack probably derives from “Wis-ka-tjon,” the name given to the trickster-transformer by native Americans north of the St. Lawrence and personified in the Gray (Canada) Jay.
One does not have to go far in an internet search to find photographs of the bold character of Whiskey Jack: feeding from someone’s hand, landing on someone’s head, stealing bits of food.
I have yet to have such an experience. I saw Whiskey Jack on my recent trip to the Canadian Rockies. He paused in a spruce tree along a popular, tourist laden trail at Lake Louise. He was shy, and quickly disappeared. The encounter was like the previous ones I have had in the Colorado Rockies thirty years ago and in Nova Scotia twenty years ago. On all of these occasions, my trail mix of nuts, dried fruit, and M&Ms was never threatened by a thief.
Whiskey Jack may have a reputation as the camp robber, but at this point in my experience, there are other birds which have had a much greater propensity for larceny. (Come back soon for more on this.)
Whiskey Jack may have the reputation for camp thievery, but in my experience - confirmed just two weeks ago - the truly accomplished looters and robbers are mammals, like the Golden-mantled Ground-squirrel, or like those fur-less mammals (which shall remain unnamed) which continuously engage in planetary looting. Old Whiskey Jack, the Gray Jay, has the excuse of harsh winters (the sort that make Vermont winters look like a tropical interlude) for his rush to grab and cache food. But those other mammals have taken the brazen thievery of the rodents to even greater heights.
Perhaps I should not point fingers, lest - to paraphrase the words of that great American philosopher, Pogo - I meet the enemy and he is I.
|Waterton Village and Waterton Lake from Bear's Hump|