Brazen Tales About The Jaunty Blue Jay

With the coming tide, the wind breezed up last Saturday afternoon and strengthened during the night until long before daybreak we had onshore gale winds that blew the power company out of business and caused all the fishermen to boot up and go check their lines.

By breakfast time we had power again, and when I looked out, the feeder at the window was loaded with chickadoodles and nuthatches having their matinal goodies in festive fashion, even though the wind was still strong and very much aft. I could see that our feathered friends were not about to go hungry just because the wind was up. Then Betty called on the telephone.

Betty lives by the hah-b'h and keeps her eye on all affairs. She reports to us every morning about whales and seals and summer people and the price of lobsters, and we do the same about Back River, the clam diggers, and who poached a moose last night. In this way an occasional nugget of useful information is disseminated and we are all spared the tedium of boredom, whatever that is. On this occasion, I told Betty that our feeder was crammed with merry songsters, attributing it to the wind, and she said she'd been watching the sea gulls and hadn't looked at her feeder.

The gulls, she said, evidently came in from sea on the gale, and now with daylight they were just making frolic over the harbor. Soaring and gliding, they were riding the currents, up and down, back and to, and seemed to be doing nothing more than playing. Not just a few, but a great lot of gulls, too many to count as they moved. I suggested perhaps the wind had stirred up feed in the water, and she said they didn't appear to be feeding; they were just plain frittering around.

Friendship Harbor lies open, so a stout southerly wind not only makes it bumpy "down below" but also churns things up inside. I believe Betty was right: There isn't an animal or bird that I know of that won't play at one time or another, as children do. Our Back River, unlike Betty's harbor, wasn't getting that wind that morning, and we had no gulls when I looked.

So with birds in mind, may I ask a question that has bothered me ever since the City of Toronto fielded a baseball team and joined the American League? That is, why the Blue Jays? What happened in Toronto that caused the Canada jay, called a gorby, to be ignored? Why is that team known as the Blue Jays rather than the Canada Jays?

I have given consideration to one possible answer: namely, that somebody felt the Canada jay is not well enough known throughout the United States, whereas the blue jay is. Perhaps. But those who do know the Canada jay know him very well and resent the oversight. The Canada jay is unquestionably the best bird in Audubon, but its habitat is limited to the north woods, and people who live outside the timber belt don't see one. Canada is loaded with them, and here in Maine we have them in great plenty, but not down in the streetlight neighborhoods.

A cousin of the bright blue jay, the Canada variety is slate colored, but with a definite jaunty jay shape, and he/she is perky, brazen, spooky, forward, very amiable, and rich in lore and legend never attributed to the blue jay, which is known mostly as a nuisance when he steals at the feeder and robs the poor little finches. Here in Maine, at least, the thieving blue jay ranks among songbirds no better than a sneaky red squirrel. So it is.

Once a year, for so many years, Bill and I would ride up beyond Mount Katahdin and enjoy our week in the Maine woods. As we arrived at our campsite, Bill would look about and begin at once to make his game count for the trip. Always, just before we came to camp, there'd be a redwing, a swamp bird of major beauty and an incredibly sweet song, as well as another not so sweet. Then we'd be at camp, with supplies to be carried in, our beds to be made, and a game list started with red-winged blackbird.

Next, Bill would break open a box of saltine crackers, remove one, and step maybe 10 feet to hold the cracker flat in his hand, straight out at arm's length. At this moment there would be but one, and infrequently two, birds in sight. Up the lake, on a boom pier, would be the lonesome sea gull of Cauc Lake Dam, known since Indian times as the wise old gull. He is always there. He is always No. 2 on Bill's game list. Then sometimes we'd have a bald eagle in the sky, circling. If there is one, No. 4 will be a gorby. There isn't a gorby in sight. But within a minute a gorby will appear. He'll light on Bill's hat or his shoulder, take a moment for a formal how-dee-do, steal the saltine, and be gone.

The Algonquin Indians called the gorby a whiskyjack. I've heard it's from an Algonquin word suggesting a ghost, wraith, even spirit. Like the albatross, the gorby was not to be abused. In a snowstorm he would appear, flitting down to lead the lost warrior back to camp. But the Indian lore ignored that gorbies are also called camp robbers and fly back and forth from camp to camp to feed at the "dingles" of each. Like the redoubtable Colonel Cornpone, the gorby knows no fear, and for a saltine will instantly make friends with somebody he never saw before. Not only that, but he would be sitting on Bill's shoulder, and Bill and I wouldn't see him coming and couldn't tell where he came from. Then, we wouldn't know where he went.

Neither Bill nor I ever ate a saltine cracker in camp.

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