The Camp Robber


Once upon a time the common name for this friendly bird of the north woods was the Canada jay, but a while back the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to gray jay. Maybe it was for consistency, as we have the blue jay and the green jay; then again, there are a number of other jays that make no reference to colour (example, the scrub jay) and then there is the Mexican jay . . .  so why the Canada jay had to go I really don’t know. Interestingly, the Latin or scientific name, Perisoreus canadensis hasn’t changed and which, as any fool can see, has quite the tie-in to Canada. And Canada is where it is widespread and common. Its range does include parts of Alaska and the mountains of the lower 48, but for the most part, it’s a pan-Canadian bird.

Anyway, many of us here in Canukistan still call the gray jay the whiskey jack. That name apparently comes from either the Cree or Innu. Although the Cree don’t have a written language, today many of their words have been transcribed and spelt using the English alphabet, and following this practice, the bird is known as the Wesakachak.

Like the raven, the whiskey jack is a member of the Corvidae family, a family of birds thought to be ‘smart’. And again like the raven, the whiskey jack is a trickster, and often called the camp robber, for it will sneak into supplies and steal stuff to its liking. Usually, that means food, but other things as well. Their facial expression appears to me, at least, to be a perpetual grin, even when it’s -400 C.

Hunters in the north woods will inevitably be visited, usually daily, by the whiskey jack. Friendly birds, they’ll come and check you out, always happy to find a scrap of sandwich. Often, if you hold out some food in your hand, they’ll take it readily. Just don’t leave your pack open and unattended. . .

While the raven is an early nester, they are nothing compared to the whiskey jack. The breeding season of the camp robber begins in late February to early March, so it’s well under way now. Their nests are hard to find; apparently, they are usually in conifers, but the best studies have been done in Algonquin Park, which isn’t really representative of the boreal forest.

Although there are several of these birds that resemble giant chickadees in our yard every day, and we try and watch where they go, we have yet to find a nest. In the past Lillian has seen them going into woodpecker cavities, and she thinks perhaps that is where some of them are nesting, at least around here.


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