The Gorbey and the Whiskey Jack

Affrica Taylor (2014)’s essay on early Australian settler children‘s relationships to animals in the context of Nation Building engages us to ponder similar narratives in our own colonial history here in Canada. Looking at these relationships through the lens of the ‘contact zones’ between colonizer and colonized explored by Bidisha Banerjee (2013), I found myself reflecting on how similar processes of imagination and symbolism have played out here in the West between early Europeans and Indigenous cultures. I’m reminded of a series of coincidences and curiosities that happened my way, in different places and very different contexts, which I believe may be given a more coherent form and substance through these perspectives.

My own personal ‘contact’ experience of this type occurred a few years ago on a hike around the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona Provincial Park, when I encountered for the first time a large group of Whiskey Jacks, or ‘Grey Jays’. The Whiskey Jack is at the same time a pesky and delightful little bird, a member of my favorite genus, the corvid (think blue jays, crows, Ravens, etc.), with a penchant for raiding picnic tables, pockets, and supplies of any kind. Whiskey Jacks (also known as the Canada Jay – how’s that for “Nation Building”?) have no fear of humans in most cases, and my experience with them revolved around an overly large bag of almonds I had packed, which they helped me empty (with aplomb), by settling on my head, shoulders, hands, lap, you name it, for as long as I was willing to feed them. This was pretty new for me (though the squirrels back home in Quebec are fairly bold themselves), and I was thrilled for an entire afternoon at this curious interaction with a species I had never actually heard much about or yet come across over many hiking adventures throughout BC.

The history of this bird in the folklore and mythology of both settler and Indigenous peoples invites an even deeper look at how ‘contact zones’ are created in these kinds of encounters. The name ‘Whiskey Jack’ is in actuality a bastardization of a series of Indigenous words from Cree and Innu tales about a trickster deity, the Wìsakedjàk in Algonquin, Wīhsakecāhkw in Cree and Wiisagejaak in Oji-cree. The path this mythological deity took to become a common name for a simple jay is complex and not completely understood. In the Woodlands region of the Maine-Maritimes area, there is a known bit of folklore about the Whiskey Jack, known in those parts as the ‘gorbey’. This is a cautionary tale invoking a taboo on harming these birds, explained through the fate of a man who once plucked a gorbey in the dead of winter and left it to die in the cold, only to wake up himself the next morning bald and hairless; as the saying goes, “anything you do to a gorbey, happens to you” (Ives, 1961). Although this New World folktale is claimed by a minor few to have antecedents in the British Isles, Bacil Kirtley argued convincingly that the origin of this taboo actually lies in the traditions of Algonquin peoples of the region, who partially plucked a gorbey in order to bring on cold weather, and considered coming across a Gorbey’s nest an unlucky sign (Kirtley, 1974). Kirtley’s interpretation of this mix up is an interesting precursor to Banerjee’s theories around ‘contact zones’:

“it reflects brooding and disturbed European sensibilities of animal empathy and articulates European ideas of poetic justice” (Kirtley, 1974, p. 365).

When I first looked into the origins of this bird, after my encounter up island, I was particularly struck by its other name, the ‘gorbey’. It’s a word I had already been piqued by over the course of several visits to my birth province of Prince Edward Island. My grandfather had teased me at dinner one visit for over-eating by jokingly declaring that “the gorbey” was around again, and they had better restock their larders. The “gorbey” of course was me, I realized, and being an inquisitive philologist who loves a good etymology, I soon traced this word, which I had never before heard, to an old Irish-Scottish word meaning essentially “glutton”. My grandfather’s wife supplied me with an extra detail she knew from an old limerick which went something like “gorbey ate, gorbey ate, blueberry pie”. Neither seemed to realize at the time this was the name of a bird in the broader region of New Brunswick and Maine.

My grandfather is a phenomenal storyteller, with a practiced mind for remembering poetry, limericks, and local (settler) lore. He and his wife are involved in a storytelling event on the island called “The Festival of Small Halls”; both participate regularly in the island’s cultural almanac magazine, ‘Red’, and are major patrons of traditional settler music (typically Celtic folk music) in the region. I’ve often plundered their memories for details of our family’s origins in Ireland, for their limited knowledge on the Indigenous peoples of PEI, and of stories of the island prior to major technological and cultural changes of the latter 20th century. Which is why it’s so interesting to me that the “truth” of the gorbey’s tale came to me through such an interesting combination of individual experiences, locations, and encounters, painting a picture that neither he nor his wife had ever considered. The story of the gorbey follows closely my own personal history as a Maritimer, moving to the west, and encountering new wildlife and new histories as I explore what it means to be a settler in a colonized nation. The gorbey is in a way a kind of deep personal ‘contact zone’ for me, in what I take to be a similar sense of how Taylor and Banerjee have engaged with early Australian colonial history. I would be very interested to hear from others how they might trace similar interactions of nations, wildlife, myth, and folklore in their own conceptualizations of identity and place, or how animals and encounters with animals factor into their own “stories”.


Banerjee, B. (2013). Utopian Transformations in the Contact Zone: A Posthuman, Postcolonial Reading of Shaun Tan and John Marsden’s The Rabbits. Global Studies of Childhood, 3(4), 418-426.

Ives.E.D. (1961). The man who plucked the gorbey: A Maine woodlands legend. The Journal of American Folklore, 74(291), 1-8.

Kirtley, B.F. (1974). On the origin of the Maine-Maritimes legend of the plucked Gorbey. The Journal of American Folklore, 87(346), 364-365.

Taylor, A. (2014). Settler Children, Kangaroos and the Cultural Politics of Australian National Belonging. Global Studies of Childhood, 4(3), 169-182.