It is the Year of the Bird and Canada is celebrating its 151st birthday, yet again, without a national bird.
Canada has many great candidates for its national bird, but the Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis) seems like the logical choice. Will the restoration of its old name — used for almost two hundred years before it was dropped in the 1950s — be enough to stimulate the federal government to adopt the species as a new national symbol?
Even when it was called the gray jay, Perisoreus canadensis not only garnered enough votes to place a solid third in a national poll ran by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) two years ago, but was also declared the best candidate overall to become our national bird.
One cannot help wonder how many more Canadians would have voted for the bird, had it been called by its rightful name, the Canada jay.
Which begs the question: How did the bird earn the name, gray jay, and more important, how did it get its old name back?
From Canada jay to gray jay and back again
The name, gray jay, was imposed in 1957 when the Nomenclature and Classification Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) published an updated list of English bird names in its fifth official checklist of North American birds. For many years prior to 1957, common names were only ascribed to subspecies, when they existed.
Despite the American spelling (gray, not grey), the new name was generally accepted by a generation of Canadian ornithologist and birders. But it became an issue when the RCGS chose Perisoreus canadensis to be our national bird.
Obviously, the original name, Canada jay, dating back to 1772, would have been much more appropriate for a Canadian national bird. It raised the question of why the AOU changed its name in the first place.
Dan Strickland, former chief park naturalist of Algonquin Park, who has been studying the bird since the 1960s, decided to find out why.
How the Canada jay got its name back
Strickland spent many hours at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, examining the AOU’s old files.
After a thorough search of past letters and minutes of meetings, he concluded that “in 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist Committee had no valid reason for taking ‘gray jay,’ then the name of an obscure west coast subspecies, and imposing it as a new overall species name for this iconic Canadian bird, rather than continuing with ‘Canada jay’ the traditional name that was then at least 185 years old.”
He then wrote an excellent and detailed article on how the Canada jay lost its name for Ontario Birds, the journal of the Ontario Field Ornithologists. He became the lead author of a proposal to argue the case that the Canada jay’s name should be restored, which was submitted to the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the American Ornithologists’ Society (AOS) in December 2017.
The committee’s deliberation did not take long. On June 21, 2018, the AOS issued its 59th Supplement to the Checklist of North American Birds where it announced that the Canada jay was getting its old name back!
This was, of course, fantastic news for “Team Canada Jay,” a group of ornithologists, naturalists, politicians, musicians and general bird-lovers from across Canada, working hard to petition the federal government to make this bird a national symbol.
Why the Canada jay and why a national bird?
The vast majority of the Canada jay’s range falls within Canada’s borders. Canada jays are found in every province and territory.
They are friendly and inquisitive, readily coming to the hand. They are also highly intelligent by bird standards, and adaptable and tough enough to forgo migration and breed even during our chilly winter weather.
One could not design a better national bird for our country!
And why do we need a national bird, you may well ask?
Well, birds are important to society in myriad ways. Birding (a.k.a. bird watching) continues to be one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America, representing a several billion-dollar growth industry.
One in five Canadians spends an average of at least 133 days a year watching, monitoring, feeding, filming or photographing the 450 or so different kinds of birds that live in our country.
We install feeders and bird houses in our backyards, we buy bird identification books and binoculars, and we take trips specifically to see birds and attend hundreds of bird festivals all over North America.
Birds also eat pests, pollinate our plants and crops, disperse seeds; their eggs and meat feed us, and their feathers keep us warm.
Birds have saved human lives not just by serving as literal “canaries in coal mines” but also by warning us of global environmental health hazards such as carcinogenic pesticides and industrial byproducts.
And what about their intrinsic value? How many great writers, artists, filmmakers — even aviators and astronauts — have been inspired by the beauty, the song and the flight of these amazing unique creatures?
Birds can also take credit for uniting nations. In 1789, when George Washington became the first president of the United States, the founding fathers chose the bald eagle for the country’s official bird because of its fierce beauty and proud independence. Americans today revere their national bird.
A list of national birds indicates that 106 of the world’s 195 countries have official birds.
But Canada is not listed — we do not have one!
Our country does have other national symbols. We’ve got official national animals (both mammals, beaver and horse), a tree (maple), and two sports (lacrosse and ice hockey). Why not a bird?
2018 is the “Year of the Bird” and thousands of ornithologists and bird-lovers from all over the world will gather in Vancouver in August. What perfect timing for our federal government to officially adopt a national bird!
And what better bird could one find than the aptly named Canada jay?
The authors would like to thank Dan Strickland for his input on this article.
David Bird, Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology, and Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre, McGill University and Ryan Norris, Associate Professor, Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, University of Guelph
“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.