Pearman: The Gray Jay

It is fitting that I devote this column to the gray jay, a bird that has received a lot of recent publicity. As most readers know, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) — after a two-year, Canada-wide search — has chosen the gray jay as our national bird. In a contest that entailed lively debates and online voting, the gray jay was chosen over the black-capped chickadee, common loon, Canada goose, and snowy owl.

The federal government hasn’t committed to naming a national bird, but the RCGS has made the case that Canada’s 150th anniversary is an appropriate occasion for our country to finally choose one.

Although the gray jay is a quintessentially Canadian bird species, some people have complained that it doesn’t really represent Canada because it is found only across the northern boreal forests. And there was some consternation voiced over the fact that the RCGS chose the gray jay even though the loon had won the popular vote.

The core range of the gray jay does not extend as far east as Red Deer, but one doesn’t have to travel very far West or North to encounter them, and anyone who has visited the West country will be well familiar with this friendly rogue-of-the-woods. If you haven’t yet encountered a gray jay, I suggest a trip to a west country campground or park (e.g., Crimson Lake). All you need to do is break out some food (nuts and pastry are favourites); within short order and with exceeding stealth, one or more of these fearless beggars will materialize to pilfer your offerings.

Gray jays are amazingly well adapted to their harsh northern home.

Check out my blog (myrnapearman.com) for a more detailed description of these amazing birds, including some of their notable adaptations (which include using saliva to stick food to storage spots) and interesting behaviours (they often nest in the dead of winter).

In addition to being nicknamed camp robber, meat hawk, moose bird and whiskey jack (from the Cree name wisedadjak, meaning mischievous prankster), this species was called Canada jay until 1957, when the American Ornithologists’ Union lumped it with the Oregon jay, and renamed it gray jay.

There has been a growing call for yet another name change, this time to reverts its name back to Canada jay. I fully support this suggestion—an iconic Canadian name for an iconic Canadian bird!

NOTE: I would like to thank everyone who came out to the launch of my new book, a compilation of five years of Red Deer Advocate nature photo essays: Beauty Everywhere: Nature Photo Essays by Myrna Pearman. Your support was greatly appreciated!

Myrna Pearman is the biologist/site services manager at Ellis Bird Farm.

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