Gray jay is the perfect choice for our national bird

November 28, 2016

By: Times Colonist

A seemingly disgrunted (but likely tongue-in-cheek) reader argues that due democratic process was not adhered to in nominating the gray jay to be Canada’s national bird (“Choice of gray jay an utter failure of democracy,” letter, Nov. 18). Let’s dispel that argument.

In January 2015, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society asked Canadians to help choose a bird species that could best represent our broad nation with its variety of habitats.

The idea of the poll was to encourage debate among Canadians about the need for a national bird and to present a slate of potential candidates. There was never any intent to merely make it a mere popularity contest.

So why the gray jay? First and most important, this little bird is found in every province and territory in our country. It does not exist in any other country in the world, save for some incursion into the U.S. — the Pacific Northwest and some bordering states, including Alaska.

Second, unlike its competitors, the gray jay has not already been claimed as an official bird for any other geographical entity. The common loon, the first-place bird, has been Ontario’s official bird for eons (and Minnesota’s). The second-place snowy owl is Quebec’s bird, and the black-capped chickadee (fifth place) is the official bird for New Brunswick, Maine and Massachusetts.

Look at this way — when we selected our Canadian flag on Feb. 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 proud of today.

And you could not find a more Canadian bird than the gray jay. First, as a member of the corvid family (crows, ravens, magpies and jays), it is arguably the smartest bird on the planet. Second, the gray jay is extremely tough and hardy. By not leaving the country in winter, it has adapted itself not only to surviving our harsh Canadian winters but also breeding as well. This bird can incubate its eggs at –30 C.

Third, gray jays are extremely friendly, readily perching on opened hands, cameras and ski poles without any training.

Fourth, unlike most birds in the world, gray jays are not promiscuous and the mates do not cheat on one another. This is a bird that is friendly, intelligent, hardy and loyal.

For 200 years, the gray jay was known as the Canada jay (we are working on getting the name back), but perhaps many folks in B.C. 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.

The gray jay is also a safe choice because it is not hunted, killed as a nuisance species or endangered.

So why did we choose a bird that many Canadians have not heard of or do not see in our backyards? The gray jay lives in boreal forest that extends from coast to coast, a habitat, incidentally, that is under siege from development. To meet our hopeful national bird, many Canadians will simply to have to go to our ski areas and into many of our national and provincial parks.

It also requires cold winter temperatures to keep its food from rotting, so it is an excellent poster child for our boreal forest, our parks and climate change, all rolled into one.

Now we just need the federal government to buy in by announcing the gray jay as our national bird for our 150th birthday party in 2017.

Thus, the gray jay/Canada jay/whiskey jack/mesangeai du Canada needs the help of all Canadians by sending emails, tweets and Facebook messages to Environment Minister Katherine McKenna, and by speaking with your local MPs.

David M. Bird of North Saanich is a McGill University emeritus professor of wildlife and leader of Team Gray Jay.

By: Times Colonist

Your comments.

  1. Marg Carruthers says:

    If you want to find one in the bush, all you have to do is unwrap a sandwich and wave it in the air a few times! They (silently) will join you.

  2. David Yoder says:

    Having worked in northern Saskatchewan several years, I have become fascinated with the Whiskey Jack and would like to know what the Cree-Ojibway name is for this interesting bird.
    Tenigee, David Yoder (now living in Pennsylvania)

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