The sound of the gray jay evokes an image of the deep North Woods: dark green spruce trees, spire-like balsam fir, and bare-branched tamaracks silhouetted against a raw, slate-colored sky; the smell of wood smoke in the air and a dusting of fresh snow on the ground. I see these birds occasionally around our cabin in northern New Hampshire and on hikes at higher elevations in the White Mountains. They’ve always had an air of mystery about them.
The gray jay is often heard before it’s seen. The bird has a number of calls, whistles, and imitations in his repertoire: many are harsh sounding, and I have witnessed gray jays mimic the scream of the blue jay. My favorite call, though, is what some ornithologists refer to as “the whisper song.” This is a soft, warbling chatter that can sound either cheerful or melancholy – depending, I suppose, on the mood of the listener. Not long after hearing the whisper song, a group of birds will suddenly appear, silently swooping and gliding from branch to branch.
The gray jay is a bird of many names. One of the most common – and the oldest – is “whisky jack,” an anglicized spelling of Wisakedjak, a mythological troublemaker in Cree lore. Other names include Canada jay, whisky john, moosebird, caribou bird, camp robber, corberie, and my personal favorite – gorby (or gorbie). Gorby is thought to be derived from the Scots-Irish gorb, meaning “glutton” or “greedy animal,” with the name likely having spread to Maine via New Brunswick woodsmen in the 1800s.
The reputation for greed is a reflection of the bird’s opportunistic, omnivorous eating habits. Invertebrates, eggs, small mammals, carrion, fungi, fruits, and seeds are all on the menu. One was observed perched on a moose, feeding on blood-filled winter ticks. Gorbies are hoarders and cache large quantities of food in bark crevices to be eaten throughout the long winter. The birds are easily tamed and will learn to associate humans with food, going so far as to take food out of the hand or out of a camp.
This tame nature has inspired plenty of folklore. My favorite folktale is the story of Esau Cant and the Gorby, as written by Gerald Averill in his book Ridge Runner. Variations of this tale have been told throughout the North Woods, but it was especially popular in the Moosehead Lake region in Maine. Here is an abridged excerpt of the story as told to Averill by an old-time lumberjack, Rocky Emmons, used with permission from the book’s publisher, North Country Press:
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In the old days, an’ I will not say how long gone it was, Esau was a bold giant of a man. He took charge in the camps an’ on the drives, an’ a hard man he was on a crew. His temper was quick an’ his hand heavy an’ he would take no lip from no man great or small. He had a thick head of yeller hair an’ a great silky beard of the same, an’ he spent hours combin’ both the beard and his head till they would glisten an’ gleam like yeller gold. This hair was a sign to him of his strength an’ manhood. He was a cruel man with the might of an ox and the heart of a weasel. No man called him friend, but he could drive a crew an’ get out the timber.
’Twas in a camp on the north side of Pogy Mountain on a day in January that the thing happened – a day of bitter cold an’ drivin’ snow, dry ice that could peel the hide from a man’s face. Esau was wild because the crew laid in an’ he spent half the day goddamning them all for a bunch of old women, even though he knew no man, exceptin’ perhaps himself, could live an’ work outside the way it was. After the noon meal, he calmed down some and sat in a great chair he had made for himself an’ began to comb is hair an’ beard. Most of the men was tired an’ napped, but Jean Ayette from across the line, meself an’ two others got out a deck of cards, but it was too cold to play. The wind shrieked an’ howled over an’ around the roof, drivin’ the dry snow in through the chinkin’ an’ every once in a while you could hear one of the cedar roof shakes loosen up and clatter.
It must have been around two o’clock when the storm was at its worst that the bird come – the little half-froze gorbie. He come an’ fluttered his wings ag’inst the winder an’ the wind caught him an’ blew him away like a wisp of paper. An’ then in the space of a few breaths he was back ag’in an’ Esau looked up an’ seen him there flutterin’ an’ beatin’ his wings ag’inst the pane. The bird dropped to the sill an’ huddled into the corner where the frame was let into the logs, an’ Esau got onto his feet an’ stepped quick as a cat to the winder.
He pulled the pegs that held in the frame an’ scooped up the bird in his fist, yellin’ for one of us to put the winder back in. He held the bird up level with his eye an’ talked soft an’ easy to it. “Ha,” he says, “ye have a familiar look about ye, me little gray crow. Ye look like Frenchy Aucoin with them two black eyes I gave him over on Black Brook two years gone, but Frenchy slipped on a jam an’ went to hell. Now,” Esau went on, “they’s some that believe men has souls an’ when they die, the souls come back an flitter around. You wouldn’t be the little thievin’ flutterin’ soul of Frenchy Aucoin, would ye now?” The bird turned his head this way and that an’ then he pulled back his little neck an’ gave a tiny peck at the hand that held him. “Well now,” croons Esau, soft an’ easy, “well now, will ye look at that! I take him in and warm him in me own soft hands an’ he bites me.”
An’ then, whilst the whole caboodle of us stood by in shame an’ fear, he opened his fist, spread an’ clamped fast a wing with his thumb an’ held the other open with a finger an’ quick an’ dainty as you please, he began to pluck the soft, short breast an’ body feathers. The gorbie squeaked once, an’ then ag’in, an’ was quiet. Twas a pitiful sight, all the feathers stripped clean from the body an’ only the wing an’ tail feathers left.
“An’ now,” said Esau, “me little naked chicken, nobody asked you here. Ye have been warmed an entertained an’ be damned to ye.” He folded the bird’s wings close to its body, closed his fist around it, an’ steppin’ to the winder, he loosed the sash an’ thrust forth the naked bird into the storm. It turned once an’ spread itself ag’inst the glass like one crucified an’ then the wind whisked it away.
There was little sleep amongst us that night. The storm grew worse toward dark, an’ it tore at the camp until we thought surely the roof would leave her. Along toward mornin’ the wind died an’ we dozed off an’ woke again when the bull-cook stoked the stove an’ lit the lanterns.
’Twas Esau’s habit – to toughen him, as he said – to strip naked in the mornin’ an’ splash the icy water over his head an’ chest, an’ there he stood in the corner by the sink, white an’ naked an’, there was no wisp of hair upon him at any place! The thick mane of hair, the glossy beard, his brows an’ even his eye whiskers was gone. The hair from his body was gone, too, an’ he stood, scared an’ shiverin’, as white an’ smooth as one of them marble statues of a man. An’ Esau did nothin’ but stand there in his nakedness an’ tremble, an’ it come to us that with his hair the best or the worst of him was gone with it, an’ after a time we covered his shame with his clothes, hung his turkey on his shoulders an’ druv him out from among us with kicks an’ blows.
The storm had stopped an’ he went flounderin’ off down the mountain through the deep snow. No man knows where he went, but for a matter of two years he was seen by none of us. They say that the Big Feller heard the tale an’, believin’ in neither good luck or bad, put Esau on the office payroll as a hunter of stray horses. He died quietly and alone in a cheap lodging house and the Big Feller paid for his funeral.
Ross Caron lives in northern New Hampshire and works as a procurement forester. He enjoys a variety of outdoor pursuits, reading, working with wood, and managing his family’s woodlots.
Gerald Averill worked in logging camps in the Katahdin region during the early 1900s. He died in 1946; the first edition of Ridge Runner was published in 1948.