At last, Canadians – and Canadian bird lovers in particular – will soon have their National Bird of Canada.
Many countries of the world have their national birds that symbolize their countries and national features. Japan’s national bird is the Japanese green pheasant (“kiji”), which the Ornithological Society of Japan designated as such in 1947. Choosing national birds began in 1782 when the United States named the bold eagle as its national bird. Britain made the European robin its national bird and India chose the Indian peacock as its symbol bird. But, despite the vast nature and abundant wild life, with more than 450 species of birds thriving, Canada has never had its own national bird.
And so, a group of devoted Canadian birders, together with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, worked for two years to designate Canada’s feathered representative, to make their selection in time for the country’s 150th anniversary – Canada Day on July 1, 2017. They chose the gray jay as Canada’s national bird and the Society made official recommendation some seven months before the 150th national birthday. But the federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not act on the recommendation, just saying there were no plans to adopt any new national symbols.
There are at least several animal and floral symbols representing Canada adopted through the Parliament’s legislation. The most famous is probably the beaver. The sugar maple, whose leaf design is placed in the center of the national flag designated in 1964, is the national flow, national plant or national tree.
These birders and ornithologists’ efforts took a significant flight forward this spring when the English name for Perisoreus canadensis – known as the gray jay for the past 60 years – was changed to its original name, the Canada jay.
“What could be a more perfect bird for Canada, besides all the other reasons why it makes a great choice, than having it named after our country?” said David Bird, professor emeritus of McGill University in Montreal and ornithologist, who is among those leading the effort to have the gray jay formally recognized as a national symbol. (The Globe and Mail, May 21) (The professor’s name, David Bird, is real.)
Although the bird had been known as the Canada jay since the early 1800s, it became the gray jay in 1957 and remained that way until a proposal to the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society last year. The name change will be announced in the July supplement of the American Ornithological Society’s publication, The Auk.
Canadian birders in general and Canada jay enthusiasts in particular have been unhappy since the American Ornithological Society changed the name for the Canada jay and the Oregon jay to the gray jay in 1957. Even more offending was the fact that they use the American spelling “gray” instead of the British and Canadian spelling of “grey.” Some of the Canadian newspapers still insist on spelling “grey” for the gray jay. (Toronto Star, July 6, 2017)
The gray jay is also known as the “whiskey jack, “ coming from the Wisakedjak – a First Nations mythological figure, but Canadians are not happy that the Canadian figure’s name is spelled as “whiskey” meaning bourbon or American whiskey, instead of whisky for Scotch and Canadian whiskies. Professor Bird says that as Americans call the bold eagle the American eagle, so Canadians should also call the Canadian bird whatever they like – the Canada jay, instead of the gray jay suggested 60 years ago by Americans.
The process of selecting the National Bird of Canada began in January 2015. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society launched a two-year project called “National Bird Project,” which included an online contest lasting for 18 months as well as public debates and consultations with ornithologists and other experts. Nearly 50,000 Canadians voted for their favorite birds out of the 450 species of the bird, contributing comments, to choose the Top 5 by popular vote – gray jay, common loon, snowy owl, black-capped chickadee and Canada goose.
The gray jay was officially chosen for the National Bird of Canada and announced by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in late 2016 in time for the official designation of the bird as Canada’s symbol to mark the 150th celebrations. But as mentioned in the above, the Department of Canadian Heritage, the official government keeper of symbols, responded with a cool statement saying “At this time, the government of Canada is not actively considering proposals to adopt a bird as a national symbol.” (New York Times, Dec.6, 2017)
Professor Bird and those on “Team Canada Jay” say there could be no other choice than the Canada jay. As he argues in documents such as Why Canada Should Have a National Bird and the 17-point The Canada Jay For Canada’s National Bird, the jay is clever and tough, doesn’t migrate in the winter, can breed in frigid temperatures … He says, “I just feel that this bird so embodies Canadian personality and psyche. It’s so friendly, it’s intelligent, it’s hearty. And that, to me, epitomizes the Canadian spirit.” (The Globe and Mail, May 21)
The birds also have a strong connection to First Nations culture and are sometimes called whisky jacks (or whiskey jacks), a name derived from Wisakedjak, meaning prankster or trickster. Gray jays were companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers in early days, and 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. In some First Nations folklore, Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who appears frequently as the gray jay, a messenger of the forest, and with chattering and whistles the bird gives an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are even stories of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost hunter home.
(mother nature network, Meet the gray jay, Canada’s new national bird, Dec. 8, 2016)
Birders don’t give up easily, despite the Trudeau government’s cool response. Professor Bird says he is prepared to walk across Canada and gather a million signatures for the Canada jay.
Photos of the Canada jay, as well as the cover of the Canadian Geographic featuring the Canada jay, are found in this cbc story at
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, senior consultant, TOCS