The Camp Robber – What a great name!
This is one of the first birds that plays an important role in To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey, and it’s one I hadn’t heard of before – at least not with that particular common name. When I started looking into this bird I found a little bit of a discrepancy. Most of what I found indicated that the camp robber is more commonly known as the gray jay – the smaller bird with the smaller bill below. But I found a few pictures of the second bird below that were also labeled as camp robber birds.
Both birds are corvids – a family that includes crows and jays. They are both gregarious, intelligent, curious birds, and both have surely been known to steal food items and approach humans. However, it appears that the gray jay (on the left) is the one usually referred to as the camp robber, a name which seems to have originated in the Yukon and Alaska during the gold rush. The Clark’s nutcracker, on the right, is larger, with a much larger bill, and (at least today) doesn’t range as widely as the gray jay. As its name implies, it was named after Captain William Clark the famous explorer, and its primary food is nuts and seeds. The gray jay is more of a scavenger. It is omnivorous and will eat carrion, as the camp robber in the book does after alerting the group to the herd of caribou below Boyd’s home.
This is an example of a very colorful local common name given to a fairly widespread bird. The depiction of the Native people feeding the camp robbers carrion in thanks for leading them to the caribou reminded me of other symbiotic bird partnerships, such as that of the honey badger and honey guide bird of Africa.
According to Wikipedia, the camp robber or gray jay is also known as the Whiskey Jack, which is an English pronunciation of Wisakedjak, a benevolent trickster hero in Cree, Algonquin, and Menominee mythologies. While these are not first nations that figure in To the Bright Edge of the World, there is a bit of a connection in the fact that one of their tricksters is figuring in a story of Raven, another trickster.