A Canada jay lands on a person’s hand on Old Spencer Road in the unorganized territory of Upper Enchanted Township, which is northwest of The Forks in Somerset County, on April 24, 2019. Morning Sentinel file

North of The Forks, if I’m lucky, Canada jays seek my company.

They’re little known, unusually friendly boreal forest birds with remarkable memories. I’m certain they recognize me as the chap who readily feeds them during my annual ice fishing adventures. Like black-capped chickadees, our official state bird, Canada jays live year-round in Maine’s western and northern forests. They’re intelligent, tough-minded, stay-at-home residents.

Snowbirds may revel in Florida’s warmth, sunny skies, beaches, pickleball courts, and gin and tonics under swaying palms. But the jays, chickadees and I say, “Bah humbug. Give us snow, sleet, long nights, and frigid temperatures.”

I love winter – a season with no black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, no-see-ums, or ticks. Enjoying close encounters with Canada jays in northern Somerset County is more exciting to me than visiting Florida or catching fish from a frozen lake.

At age 10 in 1962, I saw my first Canada jay during a family hike into Little Berry Pond. As I discovered that day, “whiskey jacks” (my parents used a common Northwoods nickname for the birds) are positively adorable. My mother – a backyard birder – fed a hot dog to a family of jays. The birds ate from our hands. I was enthralled. In years since, I’ve learned that hot dogs and many other items are not healthy for jays so I limit myself to infrequently feeding them what they might locate on their own, such as blueberries and venison. They also readily take dead mice from our camp’s snap traps.

My next memorable encounter with Canada jays occurred in February 1973, inside trapper Bob Wagg’s cabin. He would be featured several years later in “Dead River Rough Cut,” a film by Waterville’s own Stu Silverstein. The documentary includes a scene of Wagg feeding Canada jays from his hand. That winter a family friend had loaned his snowmobile to me and my twin brother so we could spend a night at his cabins in Hobbstown Plantation. It was 30 degrees below zero when we unloaded the sled at Parlin Pond. By the time we reached the former German POW camp near Spencer Lake (15 miles from where we had parked my parents’ Jeepster), we were drawn to the smoke rising from the chimney of Wagg’s tarpaper shack.


Wagg welcomed us – two “crazy college kids,” he would often repeat years later – to his shack, which was overheated by a large, antique, cast-iron Bulldog woodstove. What I most remember was a sticky molasses jar plastered with dead cluster flies, and Wagg, dressed in a dingy, dark green, wool hat and matching coat and pants, swinging open a large, frosted window and sharing his meal of biscuits and beaver tail soup with six Canada jays perched on the windowsill.

The rush of refreshingly cold air was welcomed inside the 80-degree cabin. The “gorby birds,” he said, were his friends, reincarnated woodsmen. And to one bird in his hand, he spoke affectionately, “There now, you like that, don’t you, my little piss-pot.” We were awestruck by the nearly toothless, bearded woodsman with gorby birds eating beaver meat on his windowsill.

A year ago, while snowmobiling from Spencer Lake to Parlin Pond, we twice shut off our snowmobile: once at the old POW camp for a moment of silence in honor of the late Bob Wagg, and again at the top of Bear Hill to feed a pair of Canada jays that Wagg’s spirit must have sent to us. The jays ate leftover cooked venison tips and venison sausage. Since there was more food than their tiny bellies could hold, they cached the “extra” food in the woods.

The birds are known for storing large quantities of food for later use, like humans stocking the cupboard and refrigerator. According to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, the birds produce a sticky saliva that glues stored food to the underside of low tree limbs, slightly above the height of the snow line. Researchers speculate that each bird’s ability to store and recall locations of hundreds of food items helps explain why Canada jays can survive winters in the northern boreal forest when most songbirds winter in the southern U.S. and Central and South America. But their stored winter food supply is increasingly subject to rotting, as climate change delivers prolonged periods of above-freezing temperatures. In many parts of their range, Canada jay populations are declining.

For reasons not entirely understood, the bird builds nests – insulated with moose, deer, and coyote fur – from late February until late March, when snow is deepest. I’ve watched a male and female share incubation duties behind our cabin when the thermometer registered 20 degrees below zero. Unlike other birds, gorbies don’t attempt a second brood during the May-June breeding period, when most boreal forest birds breed in Maine.

Seeing charcoal-colored Canada jay chicks in the waning days of winter is a rare treat. “The sooty youngsters,” Wagg once told me, “look like they were raised inside a stove pipe.”


Maine is home, at least seasonally, to more than 300 species of birds. Of that total, slightly more than 200 nest here. Being an avid birder and field trip leader most of my adult life, I’m often asked to name my favorite birds. If I had a list, Canada jays would be in the top five. There isn’t another Maine bird more charming. I’ve lost track of how many of the birds have followed me through the woods, landed on my hat and truck’s side mirrors, or dashed in front of my chainsaw to feed on the exposed grubs.

Moose are much sought after by camera-toting summer tourists and Mainers alike, and for good reason. They’re highly charismatic species. But so are Canada jays, which in my opinion, far surpass moose in personality. I’ve guided dozens of out-of-state birders in the Pierce Pond watershed. Canada jays are high on their wish list. A key to finding them there and in other spruce-fir forests is to talk out loud. The hungry birds often come in search of people. Invariably, they approach quietly with their characteristic short, flap-flap sail flights, hopping from branch to branch and whistling back and forth.

In central Maine where I live, Canada jays are absent. But I can watch them from the comfort of my den by simply opening my computer and clicking on the livestream of my friend Bill Sheehan’s backyard bird feeders in northern Aroostook County. It’s funny reading the posts from other birders, from all around the world, watching the feeders: “Two Canada jays were tugging on the suet. One was hanging upside down” or “a Canada jay is channeling a hummingbird, beating his wings while stationary.”

I too have seen them peck at Sheehan’s suet feeder, swallowing chunks of fat while tidbits land on the ground, to be carried off by hungry chickadees.

Ron Joseph, of Sidney, is author of “Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermit Bill: Memories of a Maine Wildlife Biologist.”

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