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Gray jay gets nod for Canada’s national bird

The gray jay is slightly smaller than the blue jay and has light grey feathers.

Frank and Sandra Horvath

It may not be as evocative as the common loon, as famous as the snowy owl or as eponymously appropriate as the Canada goose.

But it is friendly, smart and perhaps most important, hardy enough to stay put during the long and often harrowing winter months – and what is more Canadian than that?

For those reasons – and for the birding connoisseur, so many more – Canada's national bird has been chosen.

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It's the gray jay.

"The gray jay is absolutely a superb choice for Canada in so many ways," said David Bird – yes, that is his real name – an ornithologist and emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University.

"It should be up there along with the beaver and the Maple Leaf as Canadian icons."

The choice was revealed on Wednesday by Canadian Geographic, which, along with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, embarked on a two-year project to name a national bird because, it turned out, Canada did not have one.

The group now hopes the federal government will make the bird official for Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is showing signs that her government is receptive to the idea.

"Canadians' enthusiasm for the National Bird Project tapped into something beyond expressing a preference for a particular species," Ms. McKenna said in a release.

"The project ignited a groundswell of public support because those taking part recognized they were joining a movement to identify a new national symbol of pride, identity and belonging on the cusp of the country's 150th birthday."

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With more than 450 species of birds to choose from, the public cast 50,000 online votes and wrote thousands of detailed comments. The choices for national bird were eventually whittled down to five: the loon, snowy owl, goose, black-capped chickadee and the gray jay.

It turns out Canadians love their birds.

"The engagement level was just off the charts," said Aaron Kylie, editor of Canadian Geographic.

The selection panel also consulted bird experts to make their decision. In terms of popular vote, the gray jay placed third – which Mr. Kylie believes is pretty good for a bird that is not yet a household name.

"We didn't just follow the popular vote, because also, to be frank, I don't think that we should decide a national symbol based on a popularity contest," Mr. Kylie said. "If we did those kind of things, that's how you end up with Boaty McBoatface. It's not really the right way to go about something that's so serious."

The gray jay, slightly smaller than the blue jay, with light grey feathers, was deemed the right choice for a number of reasons. Found in every province and territory, the gray jay shares a special bond with Canada's aboriginal people – who nicknamed it "whiskey jack," Wisakedjak in Cree, meaning mischievous prankster. That means it may eat off your picnic table when you're not looking – but like any good Canadian, at least it means well.

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The bird thrives in winter, and has even been recorded incubating eggs in snowstorms at temperatures as cold as -30 C.

Another consideration for the panel was finding a bird that was not already a provincial symbol. Quebec has the snowy owl, New Brunswick has the chickadee, and Ontario has the loon.

Dr. Bird likened it to choosing the Canadian flag; it is something entirely different.

"We did not use the Ontario flag or the Quebec flag," he said. "We chose something fresh and new, and that's how I feel about the gray jay."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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