Whiskey Jack


Let’s take a break from fear politics and science fiction and fantasy (don’t worry, I won’t stray too far away).

Let’s talk about birds.

Specifically, let’s talk about the gray jay or, as it is commonly known, the whiskey jack.

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis), also grey jay, Canada jay or whiskey jack, is a member of the crow and jay family found in the boreal forests across North America, mostly in the northernmost parts otherwise known as the Great White North or, as those of us who live here like to call it, Canada.

Why, you ask, am I suddenly talking about gray jays?

Well, you see, in January 2015, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic magazine announced a project to select a National Bird of Canada, dubbed the National Bird Project, consisting of an online poll inviting Canadians to vote for their favourite bird. The poll closed on August 31, 2016, and a panel of experts convened the following month to review the top five selections: the gray jay, common loon, snowy owl, Canada goose and black-capped chickadee.

This month the project announced that the gray jay was selected as the winner of the contest, and will recommend that the Canadian government make the selection official as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017.

The gray jay takes advantage of man-made sources of food, hence the names “camp robber” and “whiskey jack”. Human observers do not inhibit gray jay’s feeding behavior; however, once having identified man with food it does not forget. This is probably the reason why the whiskey jack beat out the other contenders for Canada’s favorite bird. While camping or just being out in the wilderness, a favorite Canadian activity that is practiced both summer and winter, encounters with the whiskey jack are commonAsk most any Canadian about it and they’ll tell you stories about whiskey jacks stealing food from their camps. A friend of mine recently told me about a whiskey jack who stole a whole strip of bacon from a frying pan while he was cooking it in his campsite. (Yes, Canadians cook bacon while camping. We’re not savages)

The name whiskey jack is a corruption of an Algonquin word, Wisakedjak. Wìsakedjàk (or Wīhsakecāhkw in Cree and Wiisagejaak in Oji-cree) is found in northern Algonquian and Dene storytelling, similar to the trickster god Nanabozho in Ojibwa sacred stories and Inktonme in Assiniboine myth. He is generally portrayed as being responsible for a great flood which destroyed the world originally made by the Creator, as well as the one who created the current world with magic, either on his own or with powers given to him by the Creator for that specific purpose.

The Cree people believe the wīhsakecāhkw is a benign spirit, fun-loving and cheerful. The name was Anglicized as whiskey jack.Indeed, the bird is seen in Cree stories as an example of good manners and good company. Very Canadian

Wisakedjak shows up as a character in the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman, where he is frequently referred to as “Whiskey Jack” (See? I told you I wouldn’t stray far away from fantasy). In the book, he appears as a native old man, who lives in a mobile home, somewhere near a Lakota reservation in the badlands with Johnny Appleseed.

So next time you are in the remote boreal wilderness, keep and eye out for the gray jay or whiskey jack.

Or just cook up some bacon and he’ll come to you.

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