Whiskey Jack


It arrives like a ghost. You may be sitting beside your campfire dozing through a lazy summer afternoon when everything is still. There’s a soft, almost inaudible whoosh, and you take no note but the whiskey jack has arrived. It perches on a branch or stump and, while your eyes are still closed, gives you its raucous whee-ah treatment, demanding attention. lf that doesn’t scare you from an afternoon nap, nothing ever will. Then it’s a game of hide and seek as the bird flits from branch to branch, tricking you into turning your back on your food and watching the trees. Then it swoops out and before you realize what is happening, snatches a morsel and you’ve been conned.No one knows for sure why it’s called a whiskey jack. Some say it’s because the bird whisks back and forth across your campsite. Others say the nickname comes from Indian words.

One thing is certain – the bird’s correct name is gray jay. It belongs to the raven, crow and gray jay family Corvidae, and its scientific name is Perfsoreus canadensis. Calling it a whiskey jack, however, is using its most common and affectionate name. Iy is now Canada’s national bird/

Other nicknames refer to its friendly and daring characteristics. “Camp robber,” for instance, reflects the fact that it swishes by and steals food from your plate when your back is turned, or “meatbird” – on the wing it takes a piece of meat from your fingers. It is also called a Canada jay because it is a year-round resident of Canada’s boreal forests.

 The whiskey jack is a clever, devilish bird measuring 10 to 13 inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. It steals your heart as it steals your food, and you can’t help liking it because of the cheer it brings; Even in winter it is a common campsite visitor if you‘re out in the woods. It has learned to follow the sounds of gunshots and human voices because it knows that easy handouts are to be found there. Although it is a scavenger, few outdoorsmen hurt it.

The whiskey jack nests early when snow is still deep and temperatures still hover near zero. The nest, more often than not, is built in the crotch of a tree four to 15 feet above the ground. Each clutch has three to five grayish eggs heavily speckled with brown. The eggs are laid in a bulky nest as deep as it is wide. Because nesting takes place so early in the year, the bird usually builds its nest deep in heavy black spruce cover, making it difficult to find. After jaylings hatch very early in spring, their mother feeds them fruits, nuts, berries, small animals, insects, carrion, eggs and, in a pinch, lichens. In other words, the bird eats everything.

In summer, by the time the young are full-fledged youngsters, whiskey jacks travel in family groups, singing their merry notes into the forest as they go. The song is a throaty whistle interspersed by raspish squawks and hawk imitations. The call is a pleasantly slurred two-note whee-ah.

The whiskey jack is gray. Its back, wings and tail are dark, but its underside is lighter. It has a white forehead, black nape and a blank and innocent expression not at all representative of its cleverness. Its chin and throat are white. Its soft plumage gives it a soft, almost dreamy appearance.

Why whiskey jack? The most popular theory is that it’s an anglicized version of the Algonquin word “wiskatjan” or Cree “weskuchanis” meaning little blacksmith. The way the words sound, it’s quite feasible that voyageurs adopted the nickname after hearing the Indians calling it something very similar.

Whatever the reason, the whiskey jack is one of the most popular year-round residents of Canada‘s boreal forest, a clever, lovable con artist of the woods.

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