‘Ottawa’ Is the Gray Jay Fit to be Canada’s National Bird, or is That Just Loony?
The gray jay “epitomizes” Canadians — smart, friendly and, above all, tough, according to the aptly named David Bird, who led the charge to have it picked as Canada’s national bird.
It nests in deepest winter, even staying atop its eggs in blizzards at -30C, when other birds have yet to swan in from sunny climes.
It’s found in every province and territory, but almost exclusively in Canada.
Also known as the whiskey jack — from an Algonquin word meaning mischievous prankster — until 50 years ago, it was even known officially as the Canada jay.
Now it’s Canadian Geographic’s pick for our national bird, announced Wednesday night at a Royal Canadian Geographical Society event in Ottawa.
The magazine plucked the gray jay from a short list picked by 50,000 online voters in which the iconic common loon, Ontario’s provincial bird, took that popularity contest.
The snowy owl, Quebec’s avian mascot, was runner-up.
Consultations also included a live debate in September featuring experts advocating for the five, which also included the black-capped chickadee and Canada goose.
In the gray jay, “you’ve got a bird that’s intelligent, friendly and hardy — and that to me epitomizes Canadians,” said Bird, emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University.
Also like Canadians, they have this “amazing ability to sunbathe even in really, really cold temperatures by facing the sun” and they have adaptations including feathers that cover their toes when they crouch and cover their nose holes.
It might not be easy to spot in every backyard, but this is a chance to tell Canadians about a bird that has long figured in the tales of aboriginal people and explorers and draw them into Canada’s magnificent national and provincial parks.
“Otherwise we might as well have chosen the rock pigeon,” Bird said. “Why not create an icon that’s fresh and new for Canadians?”
But is it a loony choice?
“What’s the value of a symbol that nobody knows?” asked local naturalist and ecological consultant Daniel Brunton, an avowed gray jay lover.
“Walk down Sparks Street and stop 50 people … 49 of them won’t have seen them,” he said. “It’s a magnificent creature. The imagery and the metaphor for Canada is ideal … but it’s really obscure.”
Brunton has snowshoed into Algonquin Park to find their nests but argues most Canadians likely never will.
“It seems to me that a national symbol should be something that most of the people in the nation have some familiarity with, like, duh, the loon,” Brunton said. “The loon is a symbol of the North. It has a spectacular voice. It is one of the great sounds of wilderness.”
The stance of Dan Strickland, a world authority on gray jays after nearly 50 years of study, is clear. Even his license plate reads GRAY JAY.
Gray jays might be “fluffy and friendly” and known for landing on a hand for a snack, but how they survive the long winter and raise a clutch of eggs into fledglings while many of their feathered friends are still in South America is pretty amazing.
They coat food with sticky saliva then stash it under bark on trees or tufts of lichen, kept fresh by the cold but safely above the snow. Then they appear to find it again by memory.
He concedes most people won’t have seen a gray jay but hopes that could change.
“They do not occur in downtown Ottawa or Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but they’re not far away,” he said, pointing to nearby destinations like Algonquin Park, where he served as chief naturalist, or just across the Ottawa River.
“They’re out there.”
Staff at Canadian Geographic quickly landed on the gray jay, said editor Aaron Kylie. They didn’t want to “steal” a provincial bird and, like the choice of the Canadian flag, wanted to go with something completely new.
“Canadian Geographic is sort of unilaterally declaring a national bird,” he said, conceding it’s a “cheeky” move in tune with magazine traditions like Time’s Person of the Year.
“Now Canadians have to take it upon themselves if they think it’s a good idea,” he said, calling it a simple way to recognize what birds and birding mean to Canadians while symbolizing our care and passion for the environment.
“People can call it up (their MP), wish them a happy holidays and say I’d like a gift back and that would be a national bird.”