Canada (or Gray) Jay AS CANADA'S NATIONAL BIRD
Close to 50,000 Canadians voted for the bird they think should be Canada's official national bird, and on Sept. 19, 2016, a panel of experts gathered in Ottawa to debate the top five finalists.
• Steven Price, President of Bird Studies Canada
• David Bird, Professor Emeritus of Wildlife Biology,
• Mark Graham, Vice-President, Research and Collections,
Canadian Museum of Nature
• George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate
• Alex MacDonald, Senior Conservation Manager, Nature Canada
There are movements afoot in Canada to select a National Bird as part of the Canada celebrations for its 150th year of existence in 2017. Currently we have the maple as our official tree and for better or worse, the beaver as our official mammal. So why not an official bird? Many countries have one, the U.S. with its bald eagle being a prime example. And they take a lot of national pride in their bird. I strongly believe that we should choose the Canada Jay (also known as Gray Jay or Whiskey Jack).
IN NO ORDER OF IMPORTANCE,
HERE ARE NO LESS THAN 17 COMPELLING REASONS WHY IT WOULD BE A GREAT CHOICE:
Found in all thirteen provinces and territories; it is only found in a limited part of the U.S., e.g. in the Rocky Mountain region of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
A member of the corvid or crow family, arguably the smartest birds on the planet.
Not an official bird species for any of the ten provinces and recognized territories nor any other country (Common Loon is Ontario’s bird; Snowy Owl is Quebec’s bird)
Very hardy like all Canadians, having highly adapted itself to living in very cold regions and nesting in temperatures of -30 C
Figures strongly in First Nations folklore; the name “whiskyjack” or “whiskey jack” derived from Algonquin, Cree and/or Innu mythology, apparently meaning “mischievous prankster or trickster”; however, loved for its habit of warning about danger in the forest.
Is not an endangered species and thus, not at a serious risk of disappearing.
Figures prominently in the boreal forest ecological zone, constituting a vast portion of our country worthy of protection and under pressure from clear-cutting and oil and gas development.
Not a hunted species, so not shot by Canadians
Extremely friendly toward humans (like all Canadians), easily coming to the hand for treats, especially in our National Parks from coast to coast
Formerly officially called the Canada Jay by ornithologists for 200 years; its French name is still “mésangeai du Canada” and its Latin name is Perisoreus canadensis!
Stays in Canada year-round, i.e. not a “snowbird” like the common loon!
Not regarded as an obnoxious or nuisance species (like the Canada goose which is culled in the U.S., the UK, and even in Canada itself!)
Not likely to be confused with any other bird species
Not a circumpolar species, i.e. not found in other northern countries (as is the Snowy Owl)
Not flamboyantly coloured; easily reproducible in logo format
Chosen as the official logo bird of the historic International Ornithological Congress in Ottawa in 1986; it was “the most Canadian bird” they could find!
In short, I cannot think of a more Canadian bird!
While many Canadians do not see this bird in their backyard every day, many states and provinces as well as other countries have official birds that the public does not see on a regular basis and may in fact never see them as a live wild bird. The fact is that once the Canada Jay is chosen, we can promote the bird so that Canadians make an effort to visit our boreal forests to become very familiar with it and indeed, be proud of it as our National Bird.
A few years ago, a raptor organization called The Canadian Raptor Conservancy (CRC) in Ontario started promoting a national bird for Canada, but they have been doing it mostly by using an internet vote. I worry about their process because there are species on their list of candidates which would be a disastrous choice. For instance, the Canada Goose is an obnoxious bird much hated in the U.S., U.K. and even in our own country to the point of being regularly culled. Two other leading species are already recognized as provincial birds. Another leading candidate in the CRC poll, the Red-Tailed Hawk, is even more common in the U.S. than in Canada, so it is not very distinctive. Fortunately, the Canada Jay was one of the candidates in their poll.
Well over a year and a half ago, the Canadian Geographic Society (CGS) initiated a similar online survey, a much more serious effort, for the general public to weigh in on this matter. Forty candidates were nominated, including the Canada Jay. When the contest ended in late August, the front-runner was the Common Loon with 13,995 votes followed by the Snowy Owl (8948). In solid third place was the Canada Jay with 7918 votes! It is noteworthy that both the Common Loon and Snowy Owl are already established as the official birds of the two most highly populated provinces in the country, i.e. Ontario and Quebec, respectively. The former bird has also been honoured on our dollar coin.
The Canada Jay was actually known as the Canada Jay for over 200 years, but in 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist Committee wrangled over subspecies issues with this bird and “accidentally” decided to rename it as one species --- the Gray Jay. Gray Jay experts in Canada and the U.S. are currently undertaking research and investigating the possibility of restoring its original name; after all, the vast majority of its range is within Canada. In any case, what would prevent Canadians from adopting its old well-known name, should it get awarded “official bird” status for our country?!
While I do believe that the poll run by the CGS was very effective in initiating dialogue about choosing a national bird for our country, I am personally happy to see this being followed up by some intelligent discussion and debate among Canadian ornithologists about such an important matter as opposed to just having a winner chosen from a popularity contest. For example, Canada’s flag was not chosen by means of a public contest, but by an appointed committee. Nor did we simply adopt one of the provincial flags from our two largest provinces --- we chose something “fresh and new” for ALL Canadians! Our Canadian flag with its red-and-white maple leaf design is now something that Canadians look upon with great national pride.
I am seeking help from all quarters to facilitate the selection of the Canada Jay as Canada’s National Bird. Not only is it a fresh, new choice, it is a very prominent bird in our boreal forests and I call upon all Canadians to support this cause and pass around the word! To see how delightful these birds are, take a peek at a recently produced YouTube video at
While the CGS poll will not ultimately determine our National Bird, it did indeed succeed in stimulating much intelligent debate, which has now has led to a press-covered panel discussion open to the public being held at the Museum of Man and Nature in Ottawa at 1900 on Monday, September 19, 2016. This event, featuring the five finalist birds each championed by well-known Canadians will certainly serve as a sounding board to our federal government, especially in terms of the final selection of a bird and hopefully presenting it to Canadians during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2017.
Let us hope that the Canada Jay is that bird!
COURTESY: CHUCK KLING
COURTESY: RICHARD HARNESS
COURTESY: DAN STRICKLAND
COURTESY: ROBERT BATEMAN
COURTESY: JACK BARCLAY
Why the Very Cool Canada Jay BEAT OUT THE VERY COMMON LOON
COURTESY: GORD BELYEA
COURTESY: REJEAN TURGEON
COURTESY: MELANIE PEBERNAT
COURTESY: GORD BELYEA
On November 16, 2016 at their College of Fellows’ Annual Dinner in the Canadian War Museum, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) stunned many Canadians (and some folks elsewhere in the world too!) by choosing the third-place Canada Jay over the first-place common loon as their candidate to be Canada’s National Bird. While many Canucks across the country were happy with this choice, many were not, particularly those who believe in the democratic process, i.e. the most votes win, and also those who voted for the iconic common loon. Here is how happened.
First, let’s dispel with the argument that due democratic process was not adhered to. In January 2015, the RCGS asked Canadians to help them choose a bird species that could best represent our broad nation composed of a variety of habitats. The idea of the poll was simply to encourage debate among Canadians about the need for a National Bird, to present a slate of potential candidates for a vote, to stimulate the writing of essays championing various species, and finally, to consult with bird experts across the country to make the most meaningful choice. There was never any intent to merely make it a popularity contest by choosing the bird that won the popular vote. After all, what if the iconic fourth-place Canada goose had won?! Can you imagine the outrage from coast to coast?! And have you already forgotten the controversy over “Boatie McBoatFace”?
When the poll closed on August 31, 2016, 50,000 Canadians had cast their votes and the five finalists in order were the common loon, snowy owl, Canada jay, Canada goose, and black-capped chickadee. On September 19, the RCGS entered the second phase of the process by convening a panel of experts in Ottawa to publicly debate which species they believed to be most worthy of this honour. Judging by the applause and cheering that night, Team Canada Jay won the debate. Next, the RCGS consulted with a number of bird experts to make a final choice among the five finalists, created an issue of Canadian Geographic to explain their decision, and announced it at their Fellows’ Dinner. And then the loon poop hit the fan.
Before extolling the virtues of the Canada Jay, why do Canadians even need a National Bird? Well, every state and every province and territory has one. Second, many nations around the world have one. Only two years ago, the United Kingdom selected the robin (a small tit not to be confused with our American robin, a thrush species) as their bird. The Americans absolutely revere their national bird, the bald eagle, even referring to it as the American eagle. Not only does it adorn their national Postal Service logo, trained bald eagles are commonly flown at major social events like the Super Bowl. Basically, like our national tree (the maple) and mammal (the beaver), a National Bird says something about who we Canadians are. The fact that we are celebrating our 150th birthday in 2017 also provides an excellent opportunity for the federal government to give Canadians from coast to coast to coast a wonderful gift – a National Bird to be proud of!
So why the Canada Jay, you ask? First and most important, this little bird is found in every province and territory in our country. Essentially, its distribution map practically mirrors the borders of our country with some minor exceptions, i.e. the Pacific Northwest and bordering states including Alaska. The Canada Jay does not exist in any other country in the world. Nor can it be confused with any other bird. For example, for those common raven fans out there, 99.5 percent of Canadians cannot tell the difference between that species and an American crow! Moreover, unlike the other four finalists, the Canada Jay does not, I repeat, does not, leave our country in our winter months. More on that later.
Next, and this is an extremely important consideration, the Canada Jay has not already been claimed as an official bird for any other geographical entity, unlike its competitors. The common loon has been Ontario’s official bird for eons (and Minnesota’s!), the snowy owl is Quebec’s bird, and the black-capped is the official bird for New Brunswick, Maine and Massachusetts, As for the Canada goose, its exploding numbers and unfortunate habit of coating lawns and golf courses with layers of poop makes it a non-starter for any political entity. Look at this way --- when we selected our Canadian flag on February 15, 1965, we did not elevate the flags of Ontario, Quebec or New Brunswick to national status. We chose something fresh and new, a flag that all Canadians are so proud of today.
As for the character and quality of the Canada Jay, you could not find a more Canadian bird. First, as a member of the corvid family (crows, ravens, magpies and jays), it is arguably the smartest bird on the planet. Its brain-to-body ratio is equivalent to that of the chimpanzee and dolphin and nearly rivals that of the human. Second, the Canada Jay is extremely tough and hardy. By not leaving the country in winter, it has adapted itself to not only surviving our harsh Canadian winters but also breeding as well. This bird can incubate its eggs at -30 degrees centigrade! Third, Canada Jays are extremely friendly, readily coming down to perch on open hands and ski poles without any training whatsoever. Fourth, unlike most birds in the world, Canada Jays are not promiscuous and the mates do not cheat on one another. The pair remains together year-round, often flying together everywhere and even perching side by side touching one another. So we’ve got “smart”, “hardy”, “friendly” and “loyal”. What better way to describe the typical Canadian, eh?!
It gets better. For 200 hundred years, the Canada Jay was known as the Canada Jay, but in 1957 for reasons way too complicated to get into here, the American Ornithologists Union Checklist Committee decided to rename it the gray jay and added insult to injury by adopting the American spelling. Just so you know, Canada Jay experts in Canada and the U.S. are working hard to convince the committee to reinstate its original name. Fortunately, the French name, ‘mesangeai du Canada’, escaped that fate and remains today. But perhaps many Canadians best know this bird by its First Nations name, the whiskey jack -- nothing to do with the beverage by the way, but everything to do with an anglicization of a Cree-Ojibway word meaning “mischievous prankster”. Yes, the bird does have the cheeky, cute and opportunistic habit of pilfering food from packsacks, pantries and picnic baskets, but First Nations folks revere the whiskey jack because it is an omen of good fortune and a warning of danger in the forest. In the end, we Canadians can call our bird whatever we like, even the Canada Jay. It is not hunted and not killed as a nuisance species. It is also not endangered and not likely to disappear anytime soon, like the bald eagle almost did.
So I have saved the best for last. The day after the announcement, many grumpy Canadians were scratching their heads wondering “What in the heck is a Canada Jay?!” or “Why don’t we pick a bird
that I see in my backyard?!” Well, the Canada Jay is a denizen of our boreal forest that extends
from coast to coast, a habitat, incidentally, that is under siege from mineral and forest
development. The bird is found on ski mountains and in many of our national and
provincial parks. In short, to meet our hopeful national birds, Canadians are
going to have to get outdoors and go to those places to hike, camp, and/or ski.
And I guarantee you that this little bird will come down to greet you just like
it did for millennia welcoming around their campfires the people who built our
nation --- the explorers, settlers, trappers, and First Nations people. And since
the Canada Jay is highly dependent on cold winter temperatures to keep the stored
food in its caches from rotting, you could not find a better poster child for climate change!
So, what’s next, you may well ask? Well, we need the federal government to buy in by
announcing the Canada Jay as our national bird for our 150th birthday party, and regrettably,
the RCGS cannot officially lobby them. Thus, the gray jay/Canada jay/whiskey jack/mesangeai du Canada needs your help by sending emails, tweets and Facebook messages to Katherine McKenna, our esteemed Minister of Environment Canada and Climate Change and by speaking with your local national members of parliament.
A petition is currently underway to have the Gray Jay returned to its' original name, the Canada Jay.
This petition will be delivered to:
Minister of Canadian Heritage
Prime Minister of Canada/Premier ministre du Canada
And think of it this way --- had the common loon been selected, can’t you just hear Donald Trump mouthing the words “Canada, that nation of loonies!”?