Wildlife

How the Canada jay got its name back

For decades, the gregarious bird of the northern forest was simply called the “grey jay.” Now, ornithologists are once again embracing the jay’s nationality. 
  • May 30, 2018
  • 291 words
  • 2 minutes
A Canada jay in flight with outstretched wings in southwestern B.C. Expand Image
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Dan Strickland had never questioned the name of the bird he’d studied since the 1960s.

“I grew up calling it the grey jay like everybody did,” says the retired Algonquin Provincial Park naturalist.

Strickland knew that once upon a time, the grey jay had been known as the Canada jay. But the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), as it was then called, had changed the name in 1947 to grey jay. (In 2016, the AOU merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society to form the American Ornithological Society, or AOS).

The AOU was the authority on common names for North American birds. They must have had a good reason for the name change, Strickland supposed, and that was that.

But in 2016, when Canadian Geographic recommended that the grey jay be made Canada’s official national bird, Strickland’s curiosity was piqued.

“Canada jay is obviously a better name for a national bird than grey jay, especially with the American spelling,” says Strickland. (The AOU and AOS used the American spelling of “gray.”)

The first printed reference to the Canada jay dates back to 1831, but even before then, the bird had Canadian connotations. French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson identified it as Le geay brun de Canada in 1760 and famed Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus later gave it the Latin binomial Corvus canadensis—Canadian crow.

So why did the AOU change the name from Canada jay? Strickland asked around the ornithology community. Nobody seemed to know.

Strickland started to dig for more information and discovered the existence of an AOU archive in Washington, D.C. Determined to get to the bottom of the name change, he went to Washington.

A Canada jay nesting in snow in Algonquin Provincial Park. (Photo: Dan Strickland)
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