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Gray Jay – Whiskey Jack

by David Cronenwett

grayjayWinter_martinkaThere is so much snow here now, after the driest December on record, that its difficult to get my head around it. At the cabin, a foot is on the ground with a lot more on the way. The temperatures are respectable too, -22 this morning. Deep cold is punishing to wildlife, especially small-bodied creatures like birds. The relatively few species that winter in Montana must have adaptations to cope with dramatic weather events like blasts of polar air and attendant snowfall. Among the birds that stay are the Corvids; crows, ravens and jays. These are not species that many people hold in high regard for various reasons, but mostly, I think it is their commonness and comfort around humans that we resent. Our kind does tend to take the familiar for granted. However, these resident birds are some of the more interesting ones in Montana. Among the large-brained corvids we can observe in the forest this time of year is the Gray Jay or “Whiskey Jack” (Perisoreus canadensis).

Gray Jays range from the Canadian Maritimes to Alaska and down the Rockies to northern New Mexico. They are strongly associated with particular conifer species. In Montana, forests where Englemann spruce and Lodgepole pine are present provide the best habitat. It is thought that the configuration of their bark scales enable the birds to more easily cache food. Also, the antimicrobial properties in the resin and bark of these trees in addition to the cool temperatures of the subalpine environment, help to preserve food caches for long periods of time. Recent studies suggest that climate change may be affecting the southern range of the Gray Jay, in part because warmer average temperatures may be spoiling the bird’s caches. The astonishing memory capacity of the Jay enable it to revisit thousands of cache locations. They are omnivorous and will consume everything from berries to insects to live nestlings of other bird species.

Like other corvids, the Gray Jay has complex social and breeding behaviors. Because they inhabit subalpine forests year round, they are among the earliest to nest, which can be March or earlier in Montana. More dominant chicks will eventually force less dominant siblings to leave the nest, where many undoubtedly perish. In the following breeding year, dominant “stayer” chicks will help with the raising of their parent’s new young during the post-fledgling period. Generally, Gray Jays mate for life, although they will find new mates should their original one disappear or die.

The bird goes by many names to those of us who spend time in its habitat. “Camp Robber” is a popular one, due the critter’s propensity for helping themselves to human food. “Whiskey Jack” has more interesting origins. It is derived from the corruption of aboriginal terms for “Wiskedjak”. Native peoples across of the Great Lakes and boreal north have in their cosmologies a spirit-guide/trickster figure by this name, which is culturally attached to the Gray Jay. During the frontier period, settlers likely Anglicized the name, which is still very common in some regions, particularly in Canada.

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The woods are utterly silent today. I’m on snowshoes atop two feet of new powder in a mixed-montane forest along the South Fork Teton. After a fresh dump like this and with ambient temperatures below zero, there is very little activity or signs of life out here. I’ve run traps in this forest before, camped here and interpreted the area for many people. Often too, I have been accompanied on my travels in this area by Whiskey Jacks, swooping down in their slow-motion way, to investigate and look for a handout. In the stillness, I can imagine the caribou hunters of the northern forests, missing the winter migrations and facing the bitterly cold silence of starvation. We know that some of these people, who hunted by snowshoe in small bands during winter, would sometimes be visited by Whiskey Jacks. The birds must have been welcome companionship to Ojibwe and Cree hunters. In good times, the people might leave scraps of caribou for the Jays, offerings for the worldly incarnation of Weskedjak. And in other times, the birds were gratefully trapped for survival.

I’m hoping to see Gray Jays now, waiting for their startling, gentle appearance. I wait, but there is nothing except silence in the forest today. There is nothing.

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