Always in Season: Canadians debate a national bird

There's a bird in Canada's future-a national bird. The Canadian Geographic Society last month recommended a bird to represent the country. This follows an online, nationwide vote.The results are not quite official yet.The bird is the gray jay, wh...


There's a bird in Canada's future-a national bird. The Canadian Geographic Society last month recommended a bird to represent the country. This follows an online, nationwide vote.

The results are not quite official yet.

The bird is the gray jay, which occurs in every Canadian province. This was an important criterion in the selection process. Other contenders were more familiar birds that don't have the nationwide range of the gray jay.

Uniqueness to Canada was another criterion, and the gray jay ranks high there, too. It is not completely unique to Canada. In the United States, it occurs in Alaska, the Rocky Mountain States and northern New England and around Lake Superior, including northeastern Minnesota.

Two birds got more votes than the gray jay. These were the common loon and snowy owl. The staff of the Geographic Society rejected them, however, because the loon is the provincial bird of Ontario, and the snowy owl the provincial bird of Quebec.


This brought complaints that the process wasn't democratic. There were references to the U.S. election. The outcome was criticized, too. The refrain here was, "Why choose a bird we've never heard of?"

Many names

That could be because the gray jay has many names. Whiskey-jack may be the most commonly used. This is adapted from an Algonquin word and has nothing to do with the bird's drinking preferences. A number of its names are based on its habit of hanging around campgrounds: moose hawk, venison hawk and camp robber. More politely, it is known as the Canada jay. The country's name appears in the jay's scientific name, too. This is Perisoreus canadensis. The gray jay is a relative of the blue jay, though its only really close relative is the Siberian jay, common in the boreal forest belt across Eurasia.

This is a second reason a person might not have encountered a gray jay. It is a bird of wild, northern forests. It has a special affinity for spruce woods. These do not occur in downtown Toronto. Anyone camping in the North Woods is likely to know the gray jay, though. These birds are bold, even fearless, and they are opportunistic feeders. That means they'll take just about anything a camper leaves unwatched. They also can carry food in their feet, unusual among birds, except the raptors. That means they can make off with a slice of bread or even a sandwich.

The gray jay has dash.

What it lacks is flash.

Plain bird

The gray jay is a plain bird, there's no way around it. It is gray overall, of course, with a black patch on the back of the head and neck. This curves forward below the eye. The top of the head, nape of the neck, cheeks, throat and upper breast are white. The bill and legs are black. All this makes a pleasing contrast with the overall gray tone. It must be said, though, that the gray is not uniform, and so the bird has a subtle beauty. It seems a larger, robin-sized version of the black-capped chickadee.


What it lacks in flash the gray jay makes up in fascination. The gray jay is winter hardy. It is resident throughout the North. It nests early, often when the snow is still on the spruce boughs. Nests are oriented from east to southwest, taking advantage of spring sunshine.

Gray jays have a remarkable survival adaptation. They store high-energy food in a unique way. "Birds of Manitoba," published by the Manitoba Naturalists Society, describes it:

"The food is formed into a soft mass or 'bolus' in the bird's throat, then hidden in spruce bark or needles. A thick, adhesive coating of saliva helps to hold the bolus in place and protects it from driving rain or wind. By collecting and caching food in this way, especially during the autumn, gray jays are able to occupy marginal northern territories year round."

Occasionally gray jays wander south of their usual range. I've seen this bird twice in North Dakota, once in the Pembina Gorge within a mile or two of the border, and once in Grand Forks. That bird, unfortunately, was dead.

It seems to me the gray jay is an appropriate bird to represent Canada-but I don't have a vote.

โ€ข Charlie Christianson tells me of a nesting pair of red-bellied woodpeckers at his place on the south shore of Devils Lake, more evidence that this species (discussed in last week's column) is pushing farther north and west.

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