Whenever I am hiking in Algonquin Park., I always watch for gray jays. I love their gregarious nature and whenever I see one, I'm always left feeling like I've encountered it rather than simply observed it. Here is a little 9x12-inch oil painting that I created after one encounter with a gray jay— also known as a Canada Jay or a whiskeyjack.
Whiskeyjack is an English corruption of the Algonquian name “Wisakedjack,” a kind of mischievous, trickster spirit in First Nation’s lore. If you’ve ever met a gray jay, you’ll understand why it has earned that name. They are known for seeking out people in the hopes of getting some food to cache, and sometimes even stealing it from unsuspecting campers. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society endorsed it as Canada’s national bird, in part because “it has been known for centuries as a companion to Indigenous Peoples, early explorers and outdoor enthusiasts. It chattering and whistles are considered an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are stories of Gwich’in guides in the Yukon who tell of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost hunter home.”
Gray jays are remarkable birds, but not just because of their smarts and personality. Gray jays don’t migrate; they spend their winters here in Canada, unlike those overrated geese! (Why, by the way, is there a parka named after a goose that spends its winters in the south? But I digress.) To survive the winter, gray jays cache their food behind bits of bark or in rock crevices, and somehow, they remember how to find those thousands of caches again to feed themselves and their young. They even nest in the winter, incubating their eggs in the frigid temperatures of the boreal forest in March.
Photo credit: Dan Strickland
All these are good reasons why the gray jay should be out national bird, but they are not the reasons why I chose to paint a whiskeyjack. My reason is much more personal.
The first time that I saw gray jays was the day that my brother died. My brother fought a long and brave battle with amyloidosis, a rare disease that attacks the internal organs. I had been visiting him and had spent the night in a motel near Algonquin Park. In the morning, after I got the heartbreaking news, I went hiking in the park to try to calm myself before the long drive home. As I walked down a trail, two gray jays started to follow me. At first, I thought I was imagining things, so to reassure myself of my sanity, I stopped walking. The birds landed in a bush about an arm’s length away, and waited. And waited. When I walked forward, they flew to the next bush. We repeated that a few times, until I could feel sure that I wasn’t cracking up—they really were following me! They stayed within arm’s reach of me for at least 30 minutes. Later that morning, I encountered two separate groups of birders who were out looking for gray jays. Both groups had been looking for several hours but neither had seen any birds. When I told them about my encounter, they replied rather off-handedly that the birds followed me because they wanted food. While that may have some truth to it, I don’t believe it. After all, they didn’t follow any of those other hikers—just me. Wisakedjack is a trickster, but a wise and benevolent one. I think those Wisakedjacks knew I needed some company that morning.
Sadly, the gray jay population in the Algonquin area is declining, possibly due to climate change. An ongoing population study in Algonquin Park is seeking to understand the causes.