Proposed national bird a tough find in Okanagan valley

photo by Richard Cannings

(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

Why the Gray Jay should be
Canadian’s national bird

This member of the corvid family (along with crows, ravens and blue jays) was known as the “Canada jay” to English speakers for 200 years. In 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union decided that, based on a nomenclatural system they no longer use, the species should be called “gray jay” — at least for scientific literature and field guides. Meanwhile, its Latin name is Perisoreus canadensis, and in French it is Mésangeai du Canada.

The gray jay is found in every province and territory, but is not already a provincial or territorial bird.

Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States.

Historically the companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers and voyageurs, gray jays are today common visitors in mining and lumber camps and research stations, and follow hikers and skiers down trails in provincial, territorial and national parks.

Gray jays are year-round residents of Canada — remaining in the northern forest when the majority of loons and Canada geese have flown south and even snowy owls have descended from the Arctic — and they are astonishingly good at making the most of even the coldest, darkest winter months.

They are important to Indigenous Peoples. The common moniker “whiskey jack” has nothing to do with the grain-based alcohols, but is rather an anglicization of the Cree Wisakedjak and similar variations used by nations in the Algonquian language family.

Like other corvids, gray jays are among the world’s smartest birds, and have nearly the same body-to-brain ratio as humans. They’re instinctively curious and quite bold in their interactions with humans. Canadians eager to visit the country’s national and provincial/territorial parks to see this national symbol may encounter birds just as likely to seek them out in the forest.

If Canadian Geographic gets its way, the Gray Jay — sometimes known as the Canadian Jay or Whiskey Jack — may soon be Canada’s national bird.

But don’t go looking for the Gray Jay in the South Okanagan valley.

“You won’t see it in the valley — it’s a high mountain bird,” explained Bob Handfield, president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club.

“These jays prefer habitat with spruce trees and in our  area that means rather higher altitudes.  In an area where spruce trees occur at lower altitudes, gray jays are also there.”

The debate to name a national bird got started in earnest in January 2015 when Canadian Geographic asked Canadians for their opinions on the topic and got an earful in response.

“After weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds,” the magazine’s editors wrote.

“And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria: We give you the gray jay. Also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay, it is Canadian Geographic’s official recommendation for National Bird of Canada.”

photo by Richard Cannings
photo by Richard Cannings

Mr. Handfield said he applauds the choice of the gray jay as Canada’s national bird.

“I was a bit surprised at the choice of gray jay but after thinking about it a bit, I think it makes a lot of sense,” he said. It is more truly a Canadian bird than any of the others on the list.”

“I think the reaction to this choice is probably all over the place. Some want a big impressive bird like a snowy owl (a better competitor for the USA’s bald eagle) whereas many think the loon is more evocative of Canada — but it goes south for the winter (but then so do a lot of Canadians).

Other local naturalists were also pleased with the bird’s choice as a national symbol.

“Here in the valley they are better known around ski areas where they will come to look for feeders or dog food that’s left outside,” said Doug Brown.

“The Gray Jay really is such a bird of the boreal forest that it is a great representative for Canada and with many of our boreal forest birds being threatened by climate change and deforestation by logging companies it is a good choice as Canada’s national bird.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that this bird would have gotten the nod but the more I think about it the more I like it,” said Doreen Olson.  “We are a quiet nation — a big bold bird doesn’t seem to represent our people and way of life.

“It’s just maybe not the going to stand up to the Bald Eagle that represents the USA, but then, do we really want to look like Americans on the world stage?”

“They’re all through the Okanagan — if you go up into the hills,” said MP Richard Cannings, himself a well-known local naturalist and author. “If you go up to Kobau or Baldy or anywhere up above a thousand metres of elevation you’ll find gray jays.

“They’re a friendly bird; a very smart bird.”

Mr. Cannings isn’t sure, but he expects MPs will have a say in the bird’s recognition as a national symbol.

“I assume if it’s to become an official Canadian bird, that we would have a say, but I don’t really know what the procedure is,” he said. “I suppose I could put forward a private member’s bill to make it the national bird of Canada.”