Camp Robber Peak
“That Drab-Colored Imp of Iniquity”
Published 10-1-2021 | Last updated 9-11-2021
Camp Robber Peak: 61.063, -149.174 | Grey Jay Peak: 61.072, -149.176
|History||Named in 1963 by members of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska for the Alaska grey jay (Perisoreus canadensis arcus).|
|Description||In the Chugach Mountains near the heads of Bird and Raven Creeks, 2 mi W of Crow Pass, 2 mi. SE of Moraine Pass, and 25 mi SE of Anchorage.|
[Grey Jay Peak - Unofficial name, no GNIS Entry]
In a 2014 article for the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Notebook, John Morton discussed a theory that “Native Americans tended to name wildlife after behavior rather than what the critter looked like” while, in contrast, English names frequently reference appearance (e.g. black-capped chickadee and spotted sandpiper), or are commemorative (e.g. Lincoln’s sparrow).
If that is the pattern, then corvids are a notable exception. Corvids are the genus of intelligent and mischievous birds which include ravens, rooks, crows, and magpies, and through sheer force of personality the majority of them are known to the public by ancient names referencing behavior. Raven is synonymous with hunger, Crow and Rook evoke distinctive calls, Magpies are from roots associated with chattering and slyness. Jay is thought to derive from an Old French root meaning ‘gay’ or ‘merry.’ The fact that the Europeans who became acquainted with and named these northern birds did so during the infancy of English, in an era before Linnaeus and Humboldt which involved much more folklore and bushcraft and interaction with nature, undoubtedly played a role.
A pair of small, gray mountains named for small, gray birds perch above the head of Bird Creek, tucked away from the main Crow Pass Trail. The taller of the pair, Camp Robber Peak, rises to a lone point while Grey Jay Peak features a rounded main peak with a sharp tail of gendarmes extending to the northeast. Both honor the species officially named the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), although the name 'Camp Robber' has also less frequently been used to refer to other species including the Steller's Jay and Black-billed Magpie. Ironically ‘Camp Robber’ is a colloquial name for the jay but an officially recognized peak name, while ‘Grey Jay’ was the official name of the species at one time but is an unofficial peak name.
Like any good scofflaw, the Canada Jay has many aliases: Camp Robber, Whisky Jack, Whisky John, Moose Bird, Caribou Bird, Venison Heron, Hudson Bay Bird, Meat Bird, Grease Bird. Whisky Jack and Whiskey John derive from the name wisakedjak in Algonquin, a language family covering the New England coast where Europeans would have first entered the Grey Jay’s range. The nicknames associated with hunting arose because “when game is killed they are the first birds to come to the carcass,” as phrased by no less than Theodore Roosevelt. “No bird is so common around camp, so familiar, so amusing on some occasions, and so annoying on others, as that drab-colored imp of iniquity, the whisky-jack - also known as the moose bird and camp robber.”
Roosevelt’s observations of the Camp Robber were written in the Bitter Root Mountains of Montana, and he includes anecdotes of annoyed locals clubbing and killing the pests. In Alaska, however, the birds enjoyed broad cross-cultural tolerance despite their provocations. The Dena’ina recognized many of the same qualities which Europeans did, as reflected in their names: taqelbi (from the root q’el meaning grey), ch’k’naqalch’eya (‘swirling wind’), and gizha (a name for jays with no known roots), depending on the regional dialect. As in colloquial English, Camp Robbers were also deeply associated with hunting caribou. One Dena’ina myth held that, in Distant Time when “characters combined both human and animal features,”[7, p.47] Camp Robber had summoned caribou when his companions were facing starvation. As a result, the Upper Yukon Dené held that “an Indian never kills a camp robber when he steals food. He lets him go because he helped to find food for them in the days of the animal people, when the camp robber was a medicine man.” Dené hunters also actively appealed for assistance:
“Since the Canada jay or ‘camp robber’ was always around when they killed a caribou, the natives sang the jay song to elicit the help of its yega in hunting. Later they would reward the bird with scraps.”[7, p.59]
Whether through coincidence or osmosis, prospectors in Athabascan homelands throughout Alaska and Canada were reported to have mirrored the habit:
“This pestiferous bird is usually treated with undue consideration throughout the Yukon Territory and Alaska, because of a superstition believed by many prospectors to have been founded on the fact that sailors never kill a seagull. They claim that the soul of a seaman goes into a seagull. So it is taboo to kill a Camp Robber. By doing so, you will never find the gold you are seeking.” - Gerrit Snider
As native Alaskan fauna with such deep cultural significance, the names Camp Robber and Grey Jay Peaks were well-suited elaborations on the corvid theme running through place names near Girdwood which had first been established with the names Crow Creek and Raven Creek in the late 1800s. Camp Robber was named “after the local appellation of the Alaska Gray Jay […] on the first ascent of nearby ‘Rook Mountain’” on August 24, 1963, by a large party of members of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska including Dave Johnston, John Samuelson, Kim Degenhart, Brad Reed, Gary Hansen, Mike Judd, Hans van der Laan, and Vin Hoeman.
Although the two peaks are less than a mile apart on opposite sides of Steamroller Pass, it took over thirty more years before the name Grey Jay Peak was proposed by Tom Choate in June, 1998. The name remains unofficial but in widespread local use on maps and among the backcountry recreational community. The choice of the name ‘Grey Jay’ also hints at a little tidbit about the esoteric process of how the North American scientific community selects a common animal name for a given species.
While most of the corvids escaped formulaic names, the name ‘Grey Jay’ is now equally or more recognizable to Americans than ‘Camp Robber’ or ‘Whisky-Jack.’ It all started in 1830 (firmly within the era of Linnaeus and Humboldt) when taxonomists finally caught up to the Camp Robber, ignored its colorful aliases, and booked it into the system as the Canada Jay alongside the Blue Jay, Steller’s Jay, and the rest of the gang.
The name Gray Jay didn’t come about until 1947, when bickering deep within the American Ornithological Union led to the implementation of a system where each subspecies would receive a variation on the common name of the species.
“Those subspecies’ names would be based on region, so if Canada Jay was the main species name for Perisoreus canadensis, its subspecies would be called “Alaska Canada Jay” or “Oregon Canada Jay”—a geographically confusing naming convention that the AOU wanted to avoid. So, instead of sticking with Canada Jay as the main species name, it went with another name—Gray Jay.”
“It depends on where you decide to make your divisions - whether you are a 'lumper' or a 'splitter,'” as Bill Bryson once wrote of taxonomists. And the splitters had won in 1947, but by 1954 the lumpers were ascendant once again:
“Common names for subspecies were out. Subspecies would only have Latin names, and common names would be reserved only for the main species. No more Oregon Gray Jays; just Gray Jay subspecies that happen to live in the western U.S.
The AOU admitted, at the time, that this change would mean that the affected species could go back to their original names. For some reason, however, Gray Jay stuck.”
Until 2016, that is, when the Royal Canadian Geographic Society declared the Gray Jay to be their choice for Canada’s official bird. Amidst some mild uproar in support of the Canadian public’s top choice, the Common Loon, the announcement led to some scrutiny of why the common name for Perisoreus canadensis was dressed in gray, rather than a maple leaf flag. In 2018, Dan Strickland and a small team of bird experts formally petitioned the modern American Ornithological Society, and the name Canada Jay was reinstated.
Considering the native range of the jay, it’s hard to begrudge the Canadians’ claim that the bird should be associated with them. Reverting to ‘Canada Jay’ also clears up the spelling dilemmas of ‘Grey’ vs. ‘Gray' which are evident throughout this article. But Canada Jay Peak would have been an awkward name in southcentral Alaska, so the name Grey Jay Peak will likely continue to stand alongside Camp Robber Peak as tribute to the little northern rogue which thinks nothing of pilfering from a hunter around forty times its size.
With gratitude to Tom Choate for comments and insights.
The Canada Jay (species profile on eBird.org).
 Morton, J. “Dena'ina Names for Birds of the Kenai Peninsula,” Refuge Notebook 16, no. 2 (January 10, 2014): 3-4. https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_7/NWRS/Zone_2/Kenai/Sections/What_We_Do/In_The_Community/Refuge_Notebooks/2014_Articles/Refuge_Notebook_v16_n2.pdf