There is no such thing as Indian Summer at eleven thousand feet. There is life and then, with the storms, there is the long, long sleep from which a few warm days can neither revive nor rescue. The sun is shining brightly but the breeze, when it blows, has teeth. There are a few holes in the snow blanketing the ground, but the next storm will mend these and the earth beneath will slumber, shrouded in ice, until June. During the few warm months montane birds abound, but they now are mostly gone. The year-long residents remain. An American Three-toed Woodpecker drums on a nearby spruce. Mountain Chickadees squabble in the vicinity. A Common Raven flies overhead while Clark’s Nutcrackers call in the distance. I sit atop a picnic table beneath an azure sky, bundled in down, relishing the bits of life that remain, like sitting with a dying friend as he gasps his few last words.
There is a rustle in a nearby fir. I am being watched. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I nonchalantly flick a few cashews to the ground at my feet. It does not take long. A blur darts out of the tree as a gray jay descends upon the nuts. I watch it pack one, then two, and finally three cashews in its mouth. It cannot completely close its bill but it flies determinedly away. It soon returns, with friends, and as I continue to toss nuts and pieces of cracker to the ground I find myself in the midst of a group of nine or so of the brazen beggars. Gray Jays are well known, and deservedly so, for their unabashed audacity. For over a century the birds have been denominated in both the avian and popular literature as “camp robbers,” “meat birds,” “grease birds,” “meat hawks,” “moose birds,” “lumber jacks,” and “venison hawks.” To an unknown tribe of Native Americans they were “wis-ka-tjon,” which was anglicized to “Whisky John” and later corrupted to “Whisky Jack.”
This reputation is well deserved. I have watched their kleptomania in the past and today is no different. I do not throw my offerings fast enough to the ground to keep the birds happy and they manifest their annoyance. On three occasions as I am looking one way, a gray jay comes from my blindside, flies straight at my head, and brushes me with its feathers as it passes. Their boldness emboldens me. I stop throwing nuts to the ground, pour several in my hand, and rest it on the table top. The assaulters pause briefly and then one glides to the table’s edge, hops across to my hand, takes two nuts, and flies unhurriedly away. A second bird quickly replaces it at the edge. Hopping across to my hand, it briefly scorns the nuts. Instead, it bites down impertinently on my finger, tugging several times before it relents and settles for cashews. The experience is surprising, not painful. And yet, I am not surprised in the least. The ability to thrive in this beautiful but hostile place is not simply a function of physical adaptation, but a matter of moxy as well.