Once, when I was sitting on top of the Big Beehive at Lake Louise, one of my companions fell victim to one of the areas flying bandits. As he put down his granola bar to take a photograph, it had barely touched the ground when the entire thing was picked up and flown to some unknown aerial hideout. The culprit, a Clark's Nutcracker, was soon back at the scene of the crime looking for more unsuspecting victims.
When most people think of a gray coloured aerial thief, they think of the Gray or Canada Jay. Also very adept at quick lunch grabs, they're often found in similar terrain to the Nutcracker.
I've often heard both referred to as "Camp Robber" and the nickname is well earned. Any invitation to pick up a free meal is instantaneously accepted and the food hidden for future meals. In this way, they can keep coming back for more...and more...and more. Not only is your lunch carefully stored away, but they seem capable of remembering where each and every piece has been hidden.
The Nutcracker resembles a cross between a Gray Jay and a woodpecker. It's primarily gray in colour with black and white wings and a long black beak. The beak is it's most distinctive feature as it provides the best way to differentiate it from a Gray Jay.
The large beak is used to pry open the seeds of various trees, particularly the Whitebark Pine. Long and thin, it makes short work of even the toughest cones. It's also handy for pecking away at rotten wood to get at insects and grubs.
After collecting the food, it's hidden by sticking it on branches or behind bark--or even stuffing it into the ground. It'll all get eaten on some day when the hikers aren't around. The Gray or Canada Jay is very similar in colouration. It has a lighter coloured head with a much smaller beak. Their main similarity is in their aggression when trying to get at your lunch.
Since most people see the jay as it's flying away with their sandwich, it's easy to assume that they're primarily a vegetarian. Nothing could be further from the truth. A true scavenger, the jay will eat just about anything-- including carrion, young birds, eggs, and insects.
Stored slightly differently from the nutcracker, the food is covered with saliva and then either stuck to the bark of trees or stuffed into a vacant woodpecker hole.
Both these birds are fascinating to watch and can often provide a pleasant diversion on a cold winters ski. Boldly landing within a few feet of you, they're one of the most visible of our mountain birds. Please keep in mind though that feeding birds within the national parks is illegal and in most cases not in the best interest of the birds. Their diets are very specialized and white bread and cheezies are not on their list of proper foods. Keep your eyes on your lunch and happy birding.