The Gray Jay: Canada’s unofficial National Bird

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (2012)

Unless you’ve been committed yourself to complete isolation from the internet and news media for the past few days (in which case you probably aren’t reading my blog anyway), you have probably heard that on November 16, 2016, Canadian Geographic selected the Gray Jay as Canada’s National Bird. While this decision is not official – it needs government approval for that – the selection followed almost two years of debate, including an online round of voting open to the public, and then the choosing of the the national bird from the top five contenders by Canadian Geographic. The opinions of ornithologists, conservationists, cultural experts and indigenous peoples also played a large part in choosing the Gray Jay over the other finalists, which included iconic birds such as the Common Loon, Snowy Owl, Canada Goose, and Black-capped Chickadee. However, three of these are already provincial birds, and one of these is largely considered a pest (despite how heart-meltingly cute its goslings are).

I – like many birders and other people with more than a casual interest in nature – am quite happy with this choice, and fully support it. The Gray Jay may not have the bright, dazzling colours of the warblers with which it shares the Boreal Forest, but its soft gray and white plumage is wonderfully evocative of winter in the Canadian north. It is closely related to the familiar Blue Jay, making it a member of the smartest bird family on earth – the corvids – but it is not as bossy, loud, or as aggressive as some of the other corvids, and if it sees you with food, its approach is soft and inquisitive rather than demanding.

Gray Jay

Algonquin Park (October 2008)

The Gray Jay inhabits the Boreal Forest in all 13 provinces and territories. It is a survivor – it stays on its breeding territory year-round, spending its winters in the frigid north rather than facing a long, perilous journey to warmer climes. Winter poses less of a danger to these birds than the summer months, as mortality is much more likely in the summer when predators such as Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks are back on territory. Adult Gray Jays are unusually long-lived for a small songbird, living for about 8 years on average, and up to twice that on occasion!

Gray Jays are both resourceful and intelligent. Their diet includes carrion, including roadkill or animals that have been shot or trapped by hunters, and they are equally effective at capturing small amphibians and invertebrates in shallow water as they are at fly-catching aerial insects. Gray Jays have long seen humans as a source of food, and will readily approach them in the hopes of receiving a handout. If no handout is offered, they will steal an unattended snack or scavenge waste left on the ground. To survive the winter, Gray Jays spend the summer and fall caching large amounts of food (including bugs, carrion, berries, and fungi) beneath loose bark or lichen or in tree forks. They have a high success rate of recovering the food they cache over the winter; with hundreds of caches on their territory, they must remember where each one is in order to survive an otherwise foodless six or seven months of winter.

Gray Jay

Algonquin Park (October 2008)

The Gray Jay is unique among songbirds in that it often begins nest-building in February when temperatures are at their coldest and the snow is still knee-deep in places. They breed early so that their young are fully independent by summer and have enough time to amass the large amount of food needed to survive the next winter. The female incubates the eggs throughout the blizzards and bitter cold spells of March, until they hatch in early April – well before the first neotropical migrants such as warblers and flycatchers have arrived back on territory.

Gray Jay

Algonquin Park (March 2012)

While I think the Gray Jay is a fascinating bird and a fantastic choice for our national bird, a surprising number of people have spoken out against it. The main argument against the Gray Jay by non-birders is that many Canadians have not heard of this bird, let alone seen one. While it may not be known to those people who live in the populous urban centres of southern Ontario, it is a familiar bird to those who spend a lot of time in Algonquin Park and points further north, or live in provinces such as Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Alberta, and BC. This includes Canada’s indigenous peoples, who have a long relationship with this bird and call it variations of Wiskedjak, Wisagatcak, or Wisekejack, names from the Algonquian family of languages that refer to a mischievous spirit who likes to play tricks on people. These names have since been anglicized into the name “Whiskey Jack”, which makes it the only Canadian bird whose English nickname was derived from an aboriginal word.

Gray Jay

Algonquin Park (February 2010)

In addition, because the Gray Jay came in third after the Common Loon and Snowy Owl in the online vote, people who disagreed with the selection complained that Canadian Geographic ignored the popular vote. From what I understand of the voting system, a person could vote for whatever bird they wished, as long as it spent part of the year in Canada. As a birder, this was a daunting decision – according to Bird Canada, 426 species spend part of their life cycle in Canada (this doesn’t include rare vagrants or frequent visitors such as Eurasian Wigeon). Canadian Geographic upped the number of contenders to 450. How could I choose just one, when the Merlin, Common Yellowthroat, and the Wood Duck, all found coast-to-coast, could ably represent our country? Should I choose a bird for its song (Wood Thrush or Winter Wren?), its beauty (Blackburnian Warbler or Red-necked Phalarope?), or its personality (Pine Grosbeak or Red-breasted Nuthatch?)? For me, the options are overwhelming. In contrast, the average Canadian can likely name only 20 or 30 species, and can identify probably only half of those on sight. I am glad they ignored the popular vote, because allowing a large percentage of voters who can’t even name 10% of the bird species that live here to choose a national bird means that a lot of great species would be overlooked. This creates bias in favour of the familiar and the iconic, and I think Canadian Geographic was right to choose the lesser known Gray Jay, a friendly, inquisitive, and intelligent species that not only lives in all the provinces and territories, but does so year-round.

If you haven’t met the Gray Jay for yourself yet, I encourage you to spend some time in the Boreal Forest and get to know this endearing bird for yourself. Algonquin Park is a great place to see them here in Ontario, and in the winter they will readily come to investigate people on the trails. Once you’re in the right habitat, you don’t need to spend a lot of time looking for them – they’ll come looking for you!

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