The gray jay will now be known as the Canada jay, and that is music to the ears of North Saanich ornithologist David Bird. It is not a re-naming, he says, but a rightful restoration.
A group of scientists including himself and Dan Strickland proposed this restoration in December 2017, and it was recently accepted by the American Ornithological Society’s (AOS) North American Classification Committee.
Bird (the ornithologist) credits Strickland with the research that led to the name restoration. Strickland, who is currently studying Canada jays on Mt. Washington, found evidence that the American Ornithological Society made an error when changing the common name of the Perisoreus canadensis to the Gray Jay in 1957. In particular, the American spelling “stuck in Dan’s craw a great deal.”
In short, there are several subspecies of Perisoreus canadensis, and between 1886 and 1910, the AOS used the “Canada jay” name for all of them. They changed the naming rules between 1910-57 to use only this name for one particular subspecies. When the naming rules reverted back to one overall common name for all the subspecies, the AOS used the name of a different subspecies, the gray jay, for all these birds, instead of using the old “Canada jay.”
With its rightful name restored, Bird is working hard to make it a national symbol, in part because the bird reminds him of Canadians.
“They are extremely friendly birds, and inquisitive,” said Bird. “They’ll land on your head or your hand or your camera lens without even being enticed by food.”
They are found all across Canada, he said, and are also extremely hardy, sitting on their eggs in temperatures as low as minus 30.
“You’ve got friendly, you’ve got hardy, you’ve got intelligent, so you’ve got three things I think best describe the typical Canadian.”
The Canada jay, though, has some competition if Canada were to declare a national bird. Canadian Geographic launched a contest in January 2015 to “foment discussion among Canadians about what would be the best bird for Canada,” said Bird, and the common loon got the most votes; the Canada jay placed third. However, after discussing with various experts, Canadian Geographic picked the Canada jay.
Unlike the common loon which heads south for the winter, Canada jays stay year round. He also likes that it has significance to many Indigenous cultures. Canada jays are also known as whisky jacks, which has nothing to do with the drink, but is instead a soundalike of Wisakedjak, a figure for Cree, Algonquin and other First Nations.
And besides, said Bird, the common loon is already Ontario’s provincial bird. If one province’s bird was elevated to national bird, other provinces “would be screaming bloody blue murder.”
“To avoid that sitation, why not pick something fresh and new?” asked Bird, comparing it to the maple leaf flag, which was not an existing provincial flag.
The federal government has said it is not considering any more animal symbols (we already have the beaver and Canadian horse), but Bird’s colleagues are trying to get meetings with the federal government anyway because 2018 is the Year of the Bird, and there is a major ornithologists’ meeting in Vancouver this August. The timing, said Bird, would be excellent.
The bird lives in the boreal forest and can be found in national and provincial parks, but not often in people’s backyards. Bird says they are worth the hike.
“I would rather pick this bird that’s going to force Canadians to get off their couches and go into the boreal forest, visit our parks, and meet this bird, and I guarantee it will meet you in a friendly way.”