Geographic society bids gray jay as national bird

Royal Canadian Geographic Society says its choice for Canada's national bird epitomizes the best of the country's national traits.

  • Nov. 18, 2016 10:00 a.m.
Gray Jay— a good choice for our national bird.

Gray Jay— a good choice for our national bird.

Bruce Cheadle/Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Smart, hardy and friendly — the Royal Canadian Geographic Society says its choice for Canada’s national bird epitomizes the best of the country’s national traits.

The gray jay, also known as the whiskey jack, was announced Wednesday evening as the winner of the society’s laborious two-year search for a fitting avian Canadian representative.

“The gray what?” you may ask.

The gray jay, once known as the Canada jay and the “wisakedjak” of folklore in indigenous cultures, is found in the boreal forests of every Canadian province and territory but nowhere else on the planet.

The robin-sized cousin of the raven and crow has the same brain-to-body ratio as dolphins and chimpanzees, is lauded for its friendliness and intelligence, and spends its entire life in the Canadian woods — observed incubating eggs in temperatures as low as minus 30 C.

“It’s a wonderful poster child for the boreal forest, our national and provincial parks, and for climate change,” said ornithologist David Bird, part of the expert panel that helped debate the final choice whittled from a list selected by tens of thousands of Canadians. So it’s a perfect bird for Canada.”

The gray jay muscled out higher profile contenders, including the common loon, snowy owl, black-capped chickadee and Canada goose, in a contest that garnered national attention and attracted almost 50,000 online voters.

The federal government has not committed to naming a national bird — let alone the gray jay — but the Canadian Geographic Society argues that Canada’s 150th anniversary in the coming year offers a perfect opportunity.

The gray jay actually came third in voting behind the loon and the snowy owl, but was chosen following a public debate and deliberations by a panel. The winner was announced Wednesday evening at the society’s annual dinner in Ottawa.

Bird (the ornithologist, not the jay) said the whiskey jack has been shown to be “the smartest bird on the planet.”

They’re renowned in First Nations lore for warning people of predators in the woods and even leading lost travellers home by calling from tree to tree.

Jeff Wells, the director of science and policy at the Seattle-based Boreal Songbird Initiative, said Canada’s northern forest makes it a unique bird sanctuary.

“Canada’s boreal forest plays an extraordinary role in our planet’s bird life— its wild, intact landscapes act as a giant bird nursery, producing billions of birds each summer,” Wells said in an email.