After some debate, the Gray Jay has been chosen as Canada’s national bird. In 2015 the Royal Canadian Geographic Society asked the public to vote on a candidate for national bird. Now, one would think that the Canada Goose would be the top pick – after all, it has Canada in its name. On the other hand, the Canadian one dollar coin, with an image of a loon on one side, is commonly called the “loonie.” (The two dollar coin, with an image of a polar bear, is called the “toonie.” Go figure.) So why wouldn’t the Common Loon be the best pick for national bird? Or the Snowy Owl or Black-capped Chickadee? They all have positive attributes, but the RCGS chose the Gray Jay. There were arguments, some serious some tongue-in-cheek, but the Gray Jay won out.
Not only that, but the Canadian government has one more reason to to consider the Gray Jay as national bird. The American Ornithological Society, responsible for the classification and naming of birds in North America, officially changed the name of the Gray Jay to Canada Jay, the name John J. Audubon used on his original, hand-engraved plates. Turns out that the name Gray Jay should not have been assigned at all -there was some confusion regarding the populations of Gray Jays – there were the Canada Gray Jays and the Oregon Gray Jays. So those in the position to make an executive decision decided that “Gray Jay” would end the confusion. But it should have remained Canada Jay, as Audubon intended. And so it is now.
The Canada Jay is a “scatterhoarder”, caching thousands of food items during the summer for use the following winter and enabling the species to remain in boreal and subalpine forests year round. Any food intended for storage is manipulated in the mouth and formed into a bolus that is coated with sticky saliva, adhering to anything it touches. The bolus is stored in bark crevices, under tufts of lichen, or among conifer needles. Cached items can be anything from carrion to bread crumbs. A single grey jay may hide thousands of pieces of food per year, to later recover them by memory, sometimes months after hiding them. Canada Jays are members of the corvidae, which includes crows and ravens, among the smartest of birds. Their intelligence presents itself as inquisitiveness and boldness; they’re unafraid of humans and are so well-known for their willingness to pilfer food from people that in many places the species goes by the colloquial name of “camp robber.”
Though found in every Canadian province, it isn’t endemic to Canada, ranging into Alaska, northern New England, and down the Rocky Mountains as far as Arizona and New Mexico.
Canadian Geographic considered other factors to bolster the bird’s Canadianness. While many species only visit Canada during the summer breeding season, Canada Jays don’t migrate, choosing to stick it out through the country’s harsh winters. Plus, they’re important to Canada’s native peoples. The Cree name for the bird, Wisakedjak, has been Anglicized into another common colloquial name: the Whiskey-Jack.
This choosing a national bird candidate is a minor skirmish. Naming and renaming birds has always been controversial, sometimes leading to major confrontations. Meanwhile, think about turkey, gull, and penguin. Where did those silly names come from? And why do we call the Ring-necked Duck by that moniker when you can’t see the ring around the neck until you have the bird in your hand? And the Red-bellied Woodpecker which only has a barely detectable pink wash on its underparts? Don’t get me started.