A flutter of wings announced their arrival. Three Canada jays landed in a pine tree beside the gravel road.
“In Maine, they’re by far the boldest [bird],” bird expert and BDN columnist Bob Duchesne would later tell me. “It doesn’t take them long to catch on and learn from each other. They’ll come right to the breakfast table expecting a handout at campgrounds.”
On that crisp, overcast morning of Oct. 25, I didn’t know that bit of information. As I stood on the logging road southwest of Baxter State Park with my hiking companions — Betty, Wanda, Kris and Kris’s dog, Leia — all I knew about Canada jays is that they live in northern Maine. I’d seen them a few times while camping, but I’d never managed to capture a good photo.
So as the jays hopped from branch to branch, I fumbled with my camera, silently cursing as I realized that it was on the wrong settings. Seconds ticked past as I pressed buttons and turned dials. I expected the birds to fly away at any moment, but when I looked up, they were still there, right in front of me.
I photographed the closest jay, which appeared to be studying me with its round dark eyes. It tilted its head this way and that, then hopped, disappearing from the window of my lens. I lowered my camera, and there the bird was — just a few feet away — clinging to low branch of the tree. Its body was nearly upside down as it craned its neck, inspecting me closely.
In that moment, the Canada jay was the embodiment of curiosity.
“Hold out your hand,” I heard one of my companions whisper from over my shoulder.
I slowly lifted my hand, palm up, fingers relaxed. I’d seen people feed wild birds before — on the internet. I’ve heard it takes a lot of time and patience. So when I offered my hand, empty of food, to the Canada jay, I had no hope that it would actually come to me.
Well, let me rephrase that. I did have a little hope — the kind of hope that I used to have when I was a little girl and I fiercely wanted to catch sight of fairies roaming around my mother’s flower garden. I knew that it would be wonderful, but that it was highly unlikely.
So I stood there, arm outstretched toward the bird. And all of a sudden, it took flight — closing the short distance between us — and landed on the tips of my fingers.
I was in awe. I may as well have seen a fairy.
The jay’s small black feet lightly grasped my middle and pointer fingers, and it rested its full weight — about 0.15 pound, I’ve since read — in my hand. It’s hard to say how long the wild bird stood there. A few long seconds, at least. It looked up at my face, then bowed its head to look in the palm of my hand. Then it looked back up again before flying back to the tree. There the jays remained for only a few more moments before flying away.
“[Canada jays] don’t seem to have much of a fear of humans,” avian ecologist Emily Williams said.
Williams studies Canada jays at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and she’s had them land on her many times.
“That behavior is super common — the landing-in-the-hand thing,” she said. “I’d say it probably stems from people feeding them.”
The farther she gets from campgrounds, the less daring the jays seem to be, she said. But they learn fast. After all, jays are members of the corvid family, a group known for its intelligence. Other birds in that family include ravens, crows, blue jays and magpies.
Also known as gray jays, Canada jays have earned a few nicknames over the years, including “camp robber” or “whiskey Jack,” a name that is believed to be derived from a Native American spirit and trickster named Wisakedjak. Among hunters, loggers and other outdoorsy people who roam the northern reaches of North America, these birds are well known for their daring nature.
They’re opportunistic, eating a wide variety of foods including mushrooms, seeds, berries, insects, bird eggs and carrion. And to make it through the winter, they cache these items, like squirrels.
So my practical self knows that the jay that landed on my hand was likely just looking for a handout, but my more fanciful side — that wishful little girl — felt like a Disney princess befriending the beasts of the forest.
As we continued our walk, a truck rumbled down the gravel road and slowed to a stop beside us. The hunter inside rolled down his window, and we told him about the Canada jays. He smiled but did not look surprised. Having hunted in the region for many years, he knew all about these friendly birds. They’ll steal your food if you aren’t careful, he said. “They’ll sit right in your dinner plate.”