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Meet our national bird: the gray jay

After two years, nearly 50,000 votes and thousands of public and expert comments, the Canadian Geographic National Bird Project concludes. Meet our newest national emblem.
  • Nov 16, 2016
  • 896 words
  • 4 minutes
A gray jay in Western Canada's mountain forests Expand Image

Canada, meet your national bird.

With 450 species in the country to choose from, Canadian Geographic’s decision was made neither lightly nor quickly.

This national debate has been running since January 2015, in fact. But after weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds. And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria.
We give you the gray jay. Also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay, it is Canadian Geographic’s official recommendation for National Bird of Canada.

Why the gray jay is our newest national symbol

  • This member of the corvid family (along with crows, ravens and blue jays) was known as the “Canada jay” to English speakers for 200 years. In 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union decided that, based on a nomenclatural system they no longer use, the species should be called “gray jay” — at least for scientific literature and field guides. Meanwhile, its Latin name is Perisoreus canadensis, and in French it is Mésangeai du Canada.
  • The gray jay is found in every province and territory, but is not already a provincial or territorial bird. Several of the other front-runners in the National Bird Project, meanwhile, already had this designation, including the common loon (Ontario), the snowy owl (Quebec), the black-capped chickadee (New Brunswick) and the common raven (Yukon).
  • Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.
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(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)
  • Historically the companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers and voyageurs, gray jays 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.
  • Gray jays are year-round residents of Canada — remaining in the northern forest when the majority of loons and Canada geese have flown south and even snowy owls have descended from the Arctic — and they are astonishingly good at making the most of even the coldest, darkest winter months. These tough birds are unique for nesting as early as February, while the forests are still thick with snow, and have been recorded incubating eggs in snowstorms and at temperatures as cold as -30 C.
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A gray jay nesting during a snowfall in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. (Photo: Dan Strickland)
  • They are important to Indigenous Peoples. The common moniker “whiskey jack” has nothing to do with the grain-based alcohols, but is rather an anglicization of the Cree Wisakedjak and similar variations used by nations in the Algonquian language family, which makes the gray jay Canada’s only bird commonly referred to by a traditional Indigenous name. 
  • In some traditional Ojibwa stories, the trickster Nanabozho takes the gray jay’s form and leaves it with a playful, generous spirit. But it’s to the Cree peoples especially that Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who frequently appears as the gray jay, a benevolent trickster, teacher and messenger of the forest. To many western First Nations, the appearance of a gray jay in the morning is a good omen, and its chattering and whistles an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are even Gwich’in guides in the Yukon who tell of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost and starving hunter home.
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The gray jay has been portrayed in the works of wildlife artist Robert Bateman (left), and often figures in Indigenous Peoples’ lore and art, such as that of Anishinabek artist Mark Nadjiwan.
  • Like other corvids, gray jays are among the world’s smartest birds, and have nearly the same body-to-brain ratio as humans. This means they’re not only experts at recalling the locations of numerous winter food stashes hidden throughout their territories, but that they’re instinctually curious and quite bold in their interactions with humans. Canadians eager to visit the country’s national and provincial/territorial parks to see this national symbol may encounter birds just as likely to seek them out in the forest.
  • Gray jays are neither hunted nor endangered, but they are prime indicators of the health of the boreal and mountain forest ecozones and of climate change — in a prime position to inspire a conservation philosophy for all kinds of northern land uses.

Like the Canadian flag when it was selected in 1965, the gray jay is fresh and new and fitting. To quote David Bird, ornithologist and professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University, we cannot think of a more Canadian bird.


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