The National Bird Project
“There are a lot of great birds to choose from for Canada’s national bird, but have you considered the puffin? It’s a pretty cool bird. It can walk. It can fly some. It’s a friendly bird. Puffins … pick ‘em!” So went the twenty-four-second This Hour Has 22 Minutes “Puffins Attack Ad” in an early February 2015 episode. (There were also attack ads for the Common Loon and Canada Goose in the same episode.)
At Canadian Geographic magazine, where I am the editor-in-chief, we were stunned by the national comedy television institution’s spoofing of our National Bird Project, which we’d launched just a month earlier in our January/February issue, in an effort to rectify, by the country’s sesquicentennial in 2017, Canada’s lack of an official avian emblem.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but as the episode aired and helped amplify our initiative, we sure felt being parodied might indeed be the highest of compliments. And as you might imagine, one of the many things the National Bird Project lent itself to was puns, and the 22 Minutes spots certainly helped our plan take flight.
Of course, the seeds for the project originally emerged in mid-2014. Tyrone Burke, a longtime contributor to the magazine, had observed to publisher Gilles Gagnier that while Canada has a national arboreal emblem (the maple tree), a national horse (the Canadian), two national sports (lacrosse and hockey) and a national mammal (the beaver), it did not have a national bird. When the idea was shared with me, I immediately saw an opportunity (although at the time, I could not have imagined the heights it would fly to): if Time could annually name a person of the year, and People could determine the planet’s sexiest man every year, why couldn’t Canadian Geographic name a national bird?
And with the country about to celebrate that aforementioned milestone birthday just a couple of years from that time, we figured we’d help give the nation an appropriate (and long overdue) gift. So, we set the wheels in motion to help proclaim an official bird for the country, kicking off our National Bird Project in that January/February 2015 edition. In it, four prominent Canadian writers penned essays opining what the bird should be—Will Ferguson promoted the Canada Goose, Alissa York vied for the Great Gray Owl, Charlotte Grey opted for the Osprey and Noah Richler pushed for the Common Raven.
The intent of the essays was to inspire our readers’ participation, and we pointed them to an accompanying website (nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca) where they (and fellow Canadians) could vote for their favourite species and submit their own 300-word essays on which bird should represent the country. To help make that task a little easier, we solicited the help of Bird Studies Canada (now Birds Canada), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds through sound science, on-the-ground actions, innovative partnerships, public engagement and science-based advocacy.
Working with Jody Allair, director of citizen science and community engagement at Birds Canada, our managing editor, Nick Walker, created a short-list of fifty species, including songbirds, upland and game birds, wading birds, gulls and shorebirds, woodpeckers and hummingbirds, loons, waterfowl and seabirds, and raptors, that were felt likely to be the most popular options. But we also gave voters the option to share write-in candidates. Over the course of the project, while we got a few serious suggestions, we also got a number of fun recommendations: a beaver on a hang glider, the Manitoba mosquito, snowbirds, Big Bird, Rusty the Rooster from The Friendly Giant, St-Hubert’s rotisserie chicken and Birdy McBirdface.
Ultimately, we promised to proclaim a winner based on the public’s vote in the magazine’s November/December 2016 issue, such that the federal government could follow our lead and name an official bird in time for the big bash on July 1, 2017.
That was the plan. Then that 22 Minutes episode with the attack ads aired and our flight path changed—because we simply hadn’t anticipated how eagerly Canadians well beyond our 4.1 million monthly readers would flock to our initiative. Other national media outlets began calling and doing stories—The Globe and Mail, National Post, CBC’s The National, and radio stations big and small across the country. And the votes started flooding into our website—at such a rate that during one day that spring, following a flurry of news coverage, it crashed, forcing an upgrade.
And the website wasn’t just getting tens of thousands of votes, it was getting almost the same number of thoughtful, lengthy, impassioned arguments for favoured species, each one posted to the site and available for all voters to review. One day in the early going we got a submission from a Robert Bateman. Not the Robert Bateman, we thought? But, yes, the renowned Canadian wildlife artist had filled out the form on our website announcing his vote for the “friendly but wild” gray jay.
Of course, it wasn’t the first of the votes from a prominent Canadian for the hardy, gregarious bird also known as the whiskyjack, which was quickly gaining momentum as what seemed to us at the magazine at the time a dark-horse candidate for the title. David M. Bird, the coordinating editor of this publication, emeritus professor of ornithology at Montreal’s McGill University, contributed a thorough list of “fifteen reasons” (now seventeen – see Chapter 4) why the Gray Jay would be a great choice. Bird would go on to launch his own independent campaign vying for the species.
Meanwhile, at the magazine, managing the National Bird Project became a job in and of itself—answering regular media inquiries, approving website comment submissions, managing the tens of thousands of votes coming in and editing a series of essays for each issue of our magazine through 2015 and into 2016 from well-known Canadians promoting a bird of their choice, each accompanied by an amazing illustration by Toronto-based artist Charlene Chua. And as mid-2016 approached, we were seemingly suddenly confronted with the realities of figuring out how to name a national bird, with what had become apparent was worth far greater consideration than just the tally of a popularity contest (and wanting to learn from the mistakes made by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, whose online ship-naming poll led to the moniker Boaty McBoatface).
As summer 2016 began, it was clear that five birds had emerged as leading candidates for the honour: the Common Loon, the Snowy Owl, the Canada Goose and the Black-capped Chickadee (my personal favourite, lest you think I am/was biased!), with the Gray Jay solidly in third place, each receiving significantly higher numbers of votes than any other bird. So, we announced an originally unplanned second phase of the competition: a new round of voting among the final five, a live Can Geo Talks event “debate” at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature — where then Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna provided opening remarks (watch the entire debate on YouTube, it was great fun!)—and consultations with leading cultural and birding experts. The combination of these would inform our final decision. (Memorably, at the debate ornithologist David Bird, arguing in favour of the Gray Jay, made a dramatic statement noting that when Canada adopted the Maple Leaf as its flag in 1965 it didn’t simply elevate the flag of Ontario or Quebec, but rather chose an emblem that was “fresh and new.” That point was met with unsolicited applause from the audience.)
The unplanned change in process led to another significant round of mass media coverage — and a sprint to the finish. You can read the explanations of others here about why the Gray Jay was ultimately chosen (and since restored to “Canada Jay”, we humbly believe in no small part thanks to our competition) but our deliberations ultimately agreed. That bird met all our reasonable criteria best: found in every province and territory, but not already one of their official birds; and important to Indigenous Peoples. Publisher Gilles Gagnier revealed Canadian Geographic’s selection—the cover subject of our December 2016 issue “Our New National Bird, The Gray Jay”—at The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s College of Fellows Annual Dinner on Nov. 16, 2016.
I spent the following days speaking to media in Canada and around the world, including CBC, the Toronto Star, BBC.com, slate.com, The Globe and Mail, CTV news and many more. During the course of the project, its hashtag (#CanadaBird) trended number one on Twitter multiple times, and to this day, we see and hear individuals and groups referring to the Gray Jay (especially with its now-restored, original official name, Canada Jay*) as our country’s national bird—despite the fact the federal government has yet to officially recognize it as such.
But the greatest compliment? On its Nov. 24, 2016, episode, the 22 Minutes crew once again spoofed the National Bird Project and our final choice of the Gray (Canada) Jay. Said comedian Cathy Jones: “I’m not a fan. There’s hardly any meat on it. Now a loon, on the other hand, that’s good eating.