A few years ago I saw my first gray jay—one of the Adirondack Park’s boreal birds. I had read that the gray jay, a member of the crow family, is known for its boldness in stealing scraps of food from humans. Hence, it has been nicknamed “camp robber.”
I saw the jay in the dead of winter on my way to Mount Marcy. I had skied up the Van Hoevenberg Trail as far as the junction with the Hopkins Trail, about 1.2 miles from the summit. There, in the shelter of the spruce and fir trees, I stopped for lunch—a peanut-butter sandwich with raisins.
As I ate, I noticed the gray jay on a branch about fifteen feet away, eyeing my sandwich. When I held out a crumb in my palm, the bird flew down and grabbed the offering. It then returned to its perch and continued looking at me, cockeyed. So I offered another crumb and another one after that.
I’ve read that you shouldn’t feed wild birds. But, really, what was the harm? The jay got a few morsels of food, and I got a close-up look at a bird I’d been eager to see.
I was reminded of the gray jay last weekend when skiing past Marcy Dam with Alan Wechsler. While stopped at the dam, Alan held out a crumb from an energy bar for a black-capped chickadee. When the bird flew to his hand, I snapped the photo above.
The chickadees at Marcy Dam are notorious for taking handouts from people. Again, I wonder if there is any harm in this. You can argue that their behavior has been modified, that it’s somehow unnatural and therefore a bad thing. But why is it bad? Is it because freeloading actually harms the chickadees? Or is it only because it doesn’t conform to our ideal of chickadee behavior?
I also wonder if feeding a lone “camp robber” in the wild is different from feeding the chickadee flocks at Marcy Dam. After all, pilfering from humans seems to be in the gray jay’s nature.
Finally, if feeding wild birds is wrong, how do we justify feeding birds at home feeders?
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.