The embattled campaign for Canada’s national bird
Will the gray jay ever take its rightful place?
Naturalist Jack Miner was a man who appreciated waterfowl. In 1904, he founded a bird sanctuary on his farm in Ontario that eventually sheltered more than 50,000 migrating Canada geese. And at one point, he apparently declared that Canada’s national bird ought to be “the Canada Goose, the noblest creature that ever lived on land, in air, or on the water.”
He did not get his wish. But then, neither did any other Canadians who were hoping for a national bird. The government never did pick a feathered emblem for Canada.
But today, a committed band of bird-lovers is hoping to change that. Their champion, however, is not the ubiquitous goose, but an intrepid songbird called the gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis). This bird, they believe, could be the perfect ambassador for Canada.
“Having a national bird sort of reflects the psyche or the character of the people of that particular country,” says David Bird, emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University in Montreal and leader of “Team Gray Jay.”
The United States has its bald eagle. France is represented by the Gallic rooster, the Bahamas by the flamingo, and India by the peacock. Canadians, Bird and his crew felt, would be thrilled to have a national bird of their own. “Their passion for birds is extremely well documented—one of the top outdoor activities that Canadians engage in is bird watching or bird feeding,” says Aaron Kylie, editor of Canadian Geographic, the magazine of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
And this year, Canada will be celebrating its 150th birthday. “What a great gift to Canadians would it be for the federal government to say, hey we’re going to have a national bird?” Bird says.
And so, Canadian Geographic ran a multi-year contest that narrowed the field to five fowl. In November, the magazine presented the gray jay (also known as the Canada jay and whiskey jack) as its recommendation for the nation’s national bird.
The jay’s journey to official recognition is far from over—the government has yet to agree to adopt any bird as a national symbol. And some bird-lovers were miffed that more popular choices like the common loon and snowy owl were passed over.
So Bird has been giving Canadians the hard sell on gray jays. “They are the cutest damn things you could imagine,” Bird says. And, unlike a loon or snowy owl, the gray jay is curious about human visitors in its remote forests.
“They come and seek you out, they follow you around, they’ll land on your hand,” says gray jay expert Dan Strickland, who has been researching the birds since 1967. “They’re big, fluffy and appealing.”
This charisma could propel the gray jay into an important—and photogenic—role in Canadian conservation. “Canadians will flock to our national parks and provincial parks to get their photograph taken with our national bird…and they’ll want to protect it,” Bird says. It “could serve as a poster child—or poster bird—to help Canadians embrace the boreal forest and…take a more serious look at climate change and what it’s doing to wildlife.”
Now all they have to do is convince the government to adopt a national bird. “Whether it’s a gray jay or another species, we just think it’s an important thing that the country should have,” Kylie says.
A most Canadian bird
Initially, the magazine selected a pool of 40 contenders for its National Bird Project. Nearly 50,000 people voted for their favorite, and five finalists emerged. In first place was the common loon, followed by the snowy owl, gray jay, Canada goose, and black-capped chickadee.
It was time for a debate. The organization convened a panel of five experts to argue the merits of each bird, with opening remarks from Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
“There was a lot of humor and so on and puns that were thrown around. But I took the debate extremely seriously,” says Bird, who was chosen to present the gray jay’s case. “I wanted the society to think seriously about not taking…the top vote-getting bird but to instead take the gray jay because it made the best sense.”
And, despite not carrying the popular vote, the gray jay won the nomination. Canadian Geographic presented readers with a thorough inventory of the bird’s virtues.
For one thing, they said, the gray jay is “fresh and new.” Several of the other finalists had already been claimed as provincial birds. The common loon is Ontario’s bird, while the snowy owl represents Quebec. “I think that Quebecers would be outraged if the common loon of Ontario got elevated to national status,” Bird says. And the black-capped chickadee is the provincial bird of New Brunswick, as well as being the state bird of Maine and Massachusetts.
The gray jay, on the other hand, is a free agent. It’s colonized every Canadian province and territory, and for the most part dwells within the country’s borders.
The magazine was also won over by the gray jay’s hardy, inquisitive nature. It does not flee Canada in the winter, and even incubates its eggs at -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Nor is the gray jay flustered by humans. “It will come down and sit on your head, on your binoculars, on your hand without being trained in any way,” Bird says.
The gray jay is also a member of the same family as crows, ravens, and blue jays, which are renowned for their intelligence. Plus, they stay with their mates year-round. Some childless couples even “adopt” youngsters that have been driven from the nest by more dominant siblings. “It’s very unusual that adult birds would accept a strange juvenile and tolerate its presence, but that’s what gray jays do,” Strickland says.
All of this adds up to a bird that is hardy, friendly, smart, and loyal, Bird says. “I’d like to think that this kind of characterizes a typical Canadian,” he says.
And the gray jay is woven into Canada’s history. “These birds used to come down to the fires of settlers and prospectors and fur traders and First Nations people many, many years ago, when all the other birds had left for southern climes,” Bird says. “This bird was the only bird around that would come in and greet these people around their fireplaces.”
Many Indigenous Peoples also feature the gray jay in art and stories. One of the bird’s nicknames, whiskey jack, is actually an Anglicized spelling of the Cree trickster Wisakedjak.
The gray jay is also feeling the effects of climate change, being dependent on Canada’s frigid winters. The bird takes advantage of the extreme cold to build little larders full of perishable food. It uses its sticky saliva to gum berries, morsels of mushroom, and other snacks into a little bolus that it hides in bits of bark up in the trees. “If you start getting warm winters their food can rot…like their refrigerators are not working properly,” Bird says.
Over the past few decades, fewer and fewer gray jays are occupying territories at the southern edge of their range. “The most likely explanation is that the warmer temperatures are causing increased degradation of the stored food,” Strickland says. The adults may survive this misfortune, but they rely on their pantries to feed their young in late winter. “When the old birds die…there are fewer replacements coming up through the ranks,” Strickland says.
This means that, if chosen as national bird, the gray jay could also become a symbol for how vulnerable Canada’s wildlife is to climate change.
However, not everybody was thrilled by the gray jay’s triumph. Some felt that the democratic process had been derailed, Bird says. “The loon lovers were up in arms.” After all, aside from winning the popular vote, the bird adorns Canada’s one-dollar coin, commonly known as the loonie. And the loon, with its haunting call, is an iconic feature of Canada’s wilderness.
The regal snowy owl also had its admirers. Canadians think of their nation as a wild one, Kylie says. “Most of us live…in urban centers but probably 99 percent of our country is rugged wilderness, so I think people also wanted to see a bird that reflected that true nature of our geography,” he says.
On the other hand, the Canada goose and chickadee were appealing because of their familiarity. “People’s argument against the gray jay is that they don’t see it in their backyards,” Bird says. “To see the gray jay one is going to have to go to the boreal forest and go hiking, camping, snow shoeing, skiing.”
This inaccessibility makes the gray jay “an elitist decision,” George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate and black-capped chickadee advocate, told Audubon.
And it has a mischievous streak. “Gray jays, being very smart and opportunistic and somewhat cheeky, have the habit of getting into people’s packsacks and picnic baskets and even getting into their kitchen and stealing food,” Bird says. One “could argue that people don’t like the gray jay because it’s a camp robber, it’s an nuisance…its steals my sandwiches. But I don’t think that’s a serious charge.”
Besides, many birds have their dark side. Loons, for example, are very territorial, and will kill other fish eating birds when they take over a lake. “They will chase after them and stab them with their bills,” Bird says. “They even kill each other in territorial battles. Gray jays don’t do that sort of thing.”
And the Canada goose, despite its fitting name and iconic v-shaped migratory formations, has its drawbacks as well. “They are…basically coating parks and golf courses with feces,” Bird says. This means that, in many places, the overly plentiful geese are being culled. “That bird would be an awful choice for being the bird of Canada, because so many people hate it to the point where they’re killing them.”
Over time, people seem to have come around to the gray jay. After inspecting the magazine’s extensive rationale, many readers wrote to say they had been persuaded, Kylie says.
Bird of many names
But a bird isn’t necessarily crowned on the strength of public sentiment; citizens of the United Kingdom have been campaigning for a national bird for years. In 2015, “urban birder” David Lindo set up a contest that garnered more than 200,000 votes. The European robin won handily, but the government has yet to make it official, despite continuing interest.
That’s why the gray jay’s allies are strategizing on how to give it the best shot at being officially recognized. One plan of attack: ditch the bland name. Bird and his cohort are pushing to restore the bird to its original and more patriotic moniker, the Canada jay.
It turns out that this bird’s name has a somewhat tortured history. For about 200 years, it was known as the Canada jay. Its fortunes were reversed by the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), which in 1957 decreed that the common name for the bird should be gray jay, using the American spelling of “gray” rather than the Canadian “grey.”
“The original name, Canada jay, is a more suitable name for a national symbol than gray jay,” Strickland says. “The optics are not good, for Canada to have swallowed a name that was imposed by mostly Americans, and with their spelling of the word gray.” Determined to figure out how this unfortunate decision came about, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to delve into the organization’s archives.
In the early twentieth century, the AOU stopped using English names to describe entire species. Instead, the organization labeled each subspecies, the slightly different populations found within a single bird species. And so the term “Canada jay” was demoted, and went from describing an entire species to only its most widespread race.
This all made for an unwieldy bevy of bird names. Eventually, the AOU resurrected English species names, and settled on calling Perisoreus canadensis gray jays. Later on, the group “reluctantly” dropped subspecies entirely from their official Checklist of North and Middle American Birds. And yet, for unfathomable reasons, the name Canada jay was not restored to its former glory.
“There was no sound biological or nomenclatural reason for choosing gray jay,” Strickland says. In his view, this gives Canada a free pass to ignore the bird’s newer title.
“The federal government, if it chooses to name Perisoreus canadensis…as our national bird, should have no compunction about at the same time declaring that as far as we’re concerned in Canada, the name is Canada jay, the way it used to be,” Strickland says. “They must not feel that they would be committing some sort of biological sin by calling it Canada jay instead of gray jay.”
Besides, the United States itself has been known to play fast and loose with the AOU’s rules. Several state birds are not known by their official common name. Iowa’s state bird is the eastern goldfinch while Washington has the willow goldfinch. In fact, both of these birds are more properly called the American goldfinch.
The gray jay could be similarly rechristened. The government “does not have to go and get permission from the American Ornithologists’ Union or anybody else…especially when it would be restoring the historically legitimate name,” Strickland says.
A poster bird
Now that they have announced their candidate, Canadian Geographic is stepping back to let Canada’s bird-loving populace show its zeal for a national representative. “There are a number of passionate birders in the country and ornithologists who have taken up the mantle of trying to continue to push and lobby the government,” Kylie says.
But so far, lawmakers have remained unmoved by the gray jay’s charms. In December, heritage minister Mélanie Joly’s press secretary told The New York Times that the Canadian government is not actively considering proposals to adopt a bird as a national symbol.
“In the new year, we’ve had people push their MPs to get an answer from the federal government,” Bird says. They, too, have been told that there are no plans to declare a national bird.
“It’s a bit frustrating and disappointing, but we’re not going to give up,” Bird says. “I’m very confident that at some point the government’s going to eventually recognize the bird.”
He has not yet figured out a way to get Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ear. Still, he’s encouraging the public to keep writing to their representatives, pushing to restore the bird’s original name, and even working with Canadian songwriter John Acorn to pen an ode to the gray jay.
“We’re going to try to keep this bird in the hearts and minds of Canadians as much as we can,” Bird says. He hopes that the gray jay will win over Canadians so they will begin to think of it as their bird, even without official recognition.
Admittedly, “Naming a national bird is probably really low on the national government’s priority list,” Kylie says. “But I think it’s something that hopefully would be very easy and very simple. And who knows, our birthday is July 1st so we’ve still got a couple months.”
And, whether or not a national bird is named, their quest has already scored a victory. “This contest and the controversial choice in the end—choosing the gray jay over the first and second choice birds—has got Canadians even today talking about birds,” Bird says.
In the days following the gray jay’s coup, reports reached Kylie of people debating the issue in coffee shops and restaurants. The gray jay, Canada goose, and other contestants had sparked interest in the nation’s feathered denizens. “We engaged Canadians on a conversation about birds and how important they are to us,” he says.