Sitting bundled up on the porch at hunting camp, I put pieces of cornbread on the arm of my chair, and wait. I know somebody's watching. Yep, in a couple of minutes a drab gray-and-black bird, almost like a magpie, appears suddenly, silently at the end of the porch.
Nervously he flits closer to the treat, finally lands, grabs a piece of it, and he's off. Soon he's back for another. After half a dozen trips, I hold the chunks in the palm of my hand. He keeps coming till it's gone, then vanishes into the trees.
His scientific name is Perisoreus canadensis. But he and his kin have lots of others – gray jay, whiskey jack, le gaie gris, gorbey, Canada jay, camp robber. They'll grab anything edible you leave lying around.
They range from the boreal forests of the lower forty-eight all the way to Nome, and live all winter on tidbits they've stashed away during warmer months. For obvious reasons they used to hang around logging camps, where the cooks left out scraps.
Legend says they’re the ghosts of dead woodsmen; so it was forbidden ever to harm one – even if loggers did sometimes inappropriately soak their treats in whiskey to watch the predictable results.
It's hard to see how anyone ever could harm one. They're so trusting and vulnerable in the presence of Earth's most dangerous predator, there's no way I'd ever make such a misstep in our little pas de deux. To feel their tiny claws grasping my fingers as they grab treats from my palm is strangely thrilling.
One sunny February day in northern New Hampshire, I became aware of one beside me and stopped. I held out a bit of gorp in my hand from a plastic bag at my feet. The jay left with his loot; but when he came back, he went straight for the bag on the snow - cutting out the middleman!
Soon now I''ll be back on that camp porch with some high-energy corn bread. The gray jays who haunt that abandoned logging site will be there, too; and I'll share a quiet communion with these silent, watchful flying spirits of the North.