Birds of the Yukon

Although this is only my second summer of being a retired RV enthusiast, already I’m learning many things that escaped my attention in the long, hard years of a working life.

Although this is only my second summer of being a retired RV enthusiast, already I’m learning many things that escaped my attention in the long, hard years of a working life spent wandering around north and western Canada trying to get rich quick.

For instance: “Snowbird” is not an exclusively Canadian expression, some say born of a long ago Anne Murray song, and there are many other birds in the northern RV sky, so many in fact I feel as if my retirement years have begun with a crash course in bird watching.

A snowbird, of course, is any Canadian from any part of this vast and varied country who flies south in a panic every autumn to avoid the painful slow death which comes from touching anything white which falls out of the sky, almost religiously beginning on Halloween. They are often couples named Bob and Betty from Ontario who spent 25-40 years doing jobs they tolerated and raising children they loved so they could fulfill their long cherished dreams of becoming certified snowbirds and live like their heroes, migrating Canadian geese.

The eastern ones go to Florida or Myrtle Beach, the central to Biloxi, New Orleans or Texas and the western to the low desert of Arizona, California or the Mexican Baja which is pronounced “bah hah hah hah,” a combination of sadness about leaving Canada and joy about spending the winter in a place where it doesn’t snow.

In my aging naivete, I figured that was about as complex as the RV bird thing got when I joined the flock in the spring of 2014, but, boy, was I wrong. Canadian snowbirds are only half the story… no, make that 10 per cent, like every other Canadian/American statistic.

There is a virtual air force of migratory international birds, mostly American but not exclusively, who reverse the flow every spring and attack B.C., the Yukon and Alaska with their money, minds and mayhem. The first two who alerted me to this invasion were Bob and Betty, from Phoenix via Peoria who called themselves:

Sunbirds

I was in Haines Junction hiding from my grandchildren attending the 2015 Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival with a major red wine buzz when Bob approached my r-pod and asked if I would like the last of their tomatoes because they were recrossing the Alaska border in the morning and knew they would be confiscated and destroyed.

I had just been in Dyea RVing on the tidal flats earlier that week and said, “eggs too” and told him how I had to give up my eggs because of some avian chicken flu down near Vancouver somewhere.

So I pre-confiscated most of their perishable groceries and learned they were sunbirds from Phoenix escaping the insufferable heat of the Arizona low desert until “the leaves in Alaska change colours.”

That was their annual signal to start drifting south and go home. This was their tenth year of driving around Alaska with no known specific destination, and I was eating Spanish omelettes for a week in their honour after they left. Betty even tried to give me all the leftovers in their fridge, but I had other birds to fry. Such as:

Springs swans

Geese get all the honking ink, but the first birds to show up in the Yukon and Alaska every year, the true romantic harbingers of spring, are the snowy white tundra or trumpeter swans. There is a place just south of Whitehorse on Marsh Lake called Swan Haven where the local schoolchildren counted 840 swans performing mating rituals in early April while waiting for the snow to melt and lakes and rivers to flow.

Accordingly, the first RVs every spring are called swans, although most aren’t tourists at all but Alaskan snowbirds returning home early to prepare their summer tourist businesses, before the arrival of the true touring swans a couple weeks later. And selecting a new mate doesn’t appear to be their primary motivation on their way through the Yukon, but you never know.

Mexican geese

I realize Americans call them Canadian geese, but that’s not fair to Canada because they spend at least half the year eating in America, Mexico and Central America. Their big “V” formations in the spring and their persistent honkings bring joy to the hearts and ears of most Canadians just as their departure in the fall is an omen of cold and dark times to come.

Tourists who honk their horns in downtown Whitehorse or complain about anything at all, especially our bear-repellant outhouses, are called geese and most are named Bob and Betty from Kankakee.

Quacking ducks

Did you hear about the old drink bartenders are again serving in the Yukon? It’s a glass of Baby Duck with a shot of tequila, called a tight quack. In reality, tourist ducks are noisy visitors who set up right outside the bedroom window where you lay your head to sleep in sweet slumber.

Recently at Takhini Hot Pool I suffered the worst kind of quackery while attempting to start this piece, Germans. Yukon beer affected them like laughing gas and I couldn’t understand a word of their hilarity. They were playing picnic table poker using rocks for chips, which appeared to be the most fun they ever had.

That morning I lambasted them with my only available editorial diatribe in German: “GUTEN MORGEN! DANKE UND AUF WIEDERSEHEN!!!” That means, “Good morning. Thank you and goodbye.”

Canadians are always polite to visitors even when we don’t want to be.

As my hero, Sam Clemens, put it: “It’s awful undermining to the intellect, German is; you want to take it in small doses, or first you know your brains all run together, and you feel them flapping around in your head same as so much drawn butter.”

Uh oh. I just noticed they left their chairs, drying towels and poker chips here. There goes the Spell of the Yukon.

Great American bald eagle

As an ex-USMC Vietnam veteran (Chu Lai mostly, 1966-67), I’ve never understood America’s patriotic devotion to this lazy scavenger which is really nothing more than a vulture in dress blues. It was also the predominant symbol of Nazi Germany, the Roman Empire, the Mongols led by Genghis Khan and who knows how many other conquering nations and Chinese warlords.

It classifies as a predator, a bird of prey, and is a suitable symbol for violent empires but it’s mostly fiction because it “preys” on small, injured mammals and helpless fish. The Chilkat River, near Haines, Alaska attracts thousands of them when the salmon are running, but the eagles mostly sit in the trees watching the grizzly bears do all the work, then swoop down for the leftovers.

We get lots of eagles coming up the Alaska Highway in the summer. You can tell them by either the olive drab, camo or red, white and blue vehicles, some painted like the American flag with stars and stripes and a sound system playing God Bless America.

As a veteran I always salute them, old habits die hard, but most Yukon kids just wave their street hockey sticks at them and carry on with more important matters, like trying to figure out how to beat a goalie with a low wrist shot.

It’s their grandparents who sometimes mutter about the construction of the highway by the U.S. Army corps of engineers in 1942. They killed and ate so many moose and caribou while they were here, it took 10 years after the end of the war for the stocks to recover and feed Yukoners again.

And everybody knows there weren’t any mosquitos in the Yukon until the U.S. Army built all those airfields, because there wasn’t anywhere for them to land.

But thanks for the road. Couldn’t have built it without you.

Whiskey jacks

The real Whiskey jacks are actually called western jays or “camp robbers” and make good company around campfires. The tourist whiskey jacks are the same, friendly visitors from around the globe named Bob and Betty who tell funny stories, ask good questions and increase your knowledge with a tidbit or two of intelligence you never knew before. You are always sorry to see them go, until you notice your fresh loaf of rustic French bread is missing.

Ravens

The common raven is a sacred bird in the Yukon, the official bird of the territory and is treated with the same respect bald eagles receive in Alaska. Like eagles, they are also scavengers whose main duty is cleaning up the mess others leave behind. They are Yukon ubiquitous, which means everywhere, much like summer tourists.

Visitors should be aware that biggest compliment you may hear is when a Yukoner calls you a raven. It’s no different than being called an eagle in America, so leave your guns and grenades in the truck if somebody calls you one. If they truly wanted to insult you, they would have called you a “yellow-bellied sapsucker.”

Them’s fightin’ words, even in Canada, the world’s most peaceful large nation, where the only thing worth fighting for is possession a four-inch hard rubber black disk in the late spring during the annual tribute to Lord Stanley’s drinking mug when bird watching season is in full swing.

Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.