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Gray Jay

Gray Jay atop Mount Jackson.

Jay Hotfoot

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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I didn't do it! The gray jay gave himself a hotfoot!

Any field guide to birds will describe the Canada jay or gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as a "bold" bird. To get an idea of what "bold" means, consider some of the other names for the gray jay: camp robber, meat jay. They steal food from campers, and they'll even land on your hand to take the meat out of your sandwich. "Bold" indeed.

In New Hampshire, gray jays only live at high altitudes, and I know them almost exclusively from my hikes to the top of Mount Jackson. They gather around as we sit down to lunch, dashing in for fallen crumbs, or even fluttering all around you as you try to unwrap your sandwich. You have to keep an eye on your backpack, or they'll rip open an unguarded snack.

On almost every visit to Mount Jackson, I've seen two to four gray jays making the rounds of all the groups of hikers to see what they can snatch. In late summer, the group usually includes one or two "freckle-faced" individuals, which I take to be the young of the year.

Freckle-faced gray jay

I take these freckle-faced jays to be the young of the year.

One year, I took an unusual-for-me winter hike up Crawford Path. There's nothing unusual about a winter hike, but I usually don't go above timberline in winter. I had never been up Crawford Path in winter, but even on this hike, I had no intention of going above timberline.

I wasn't exactly sure where I was going. I wanted to get out into the woods alone to think, and I didn't want to go to my usual winter hangouts where I might not be alone, so I just headed up Crawford Path. A light snow was falling, so when I got to the intersection with the Mizpah Cut-Off, I decided that was far enough. I'd settle down right there and do my thinking for a while.

But I was no longer alone. Also hanging out at the trail intersection that day were a red squirrel and two gray jays.

Lots of unusual things going on here, besides my winter hike with no particular destination. For one, I had never seen red squirrels hanging around looking for a handout, except in the campgrounds and at Arethusa Falls, where large numbers of people spend lots of time, and the squirrels had learned to beg. Surely this squirrel in the middle of genuine wilderness had not had as much prolonged contact with hikers as the squirrels at Arethusa Falls, but here he was, eying me with that same expectant look.

It was also unusual to see gray jays at so low an altitude. I had read that they move lower down the mountains in winter, and now I had seen it for myself. This trail intersection is only about 3,000 feet above sea level, and I had never seen gray jays that low before, and only a few times since.

I tried to settle down and light up a cigar - great aid to solitary thinking - but the jays hadn't read the script. They saw me unwrapping something, and they wanted some! They landed on my shoulders and fluttered around my hands, sometimes singly and sometimes both simultaneously. I had to struggle to unwrap the cigar, fending off the birds gently so as not to hurt them, and squinting my eyes to protect them from the thrashing wings. (Hmph! The birds were not so considerate about not hurting me!)

Meanwhile, the squirrel stood watch on a nearby stump, ready to recover any fallen crumbs.


I finally got the cigar opened, and I let the jays take turns landing in my hand and pecking at the cigar. I assumed they would realize that it was not something they actually wanted, and they would leave me in peace to do my thinking.

They left me, but they didn't go far. One perched on the trail sign that indicated the way to the summit of Mount Pierce, and the other evicted the squirrel from his stump and took over his position. The squirrel found another lookout post in a tree, and all three watched intently as I cut the cigar and lit it.

I began to concentrate on my thoughts, when I was interrupted yet again. One of the jays flew over and actually perched on my cigar!

Slowly, the bird's feet slipped on the smooth binder of the cigar, and every now and then he had to shift his footing. He looked me right in the eye, as if expecting something.

I watched in amused anticipation. I was expecting something, too!

Many seconds elapsed. It was almost like a cartoon. Sure enough, the bird's foot slowly slid to within a couple of millimeters of the glowing ember. The jay let out a startled little squawk and flew back to his stump.

(He wasn't actually injured. Just startled.)

Serves you right, you little brat!

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