What Is the National Bird of Canada? (Why Was It Chosen?)

The National Bird of Canada Gray Jay

If you are wondering which bird Canada wants as its national bird, it is the Gray Jay. Chosen for their adaptability and intelligence, these birds embody the Canadian spirit in the face of harsh winters.

Also called the Whiskey Jack, Grey Jay, or Canada Jay, the Gray Jay is Canada’s national bird. For one thing, they inhabit all thirteen provinces and territories across the country. Specifically, they became a national symbol when nearly 8,000 Canadians voted for them as the country’s official bird.

This article offers a detailed look at Gray Jays. We will discuss exactly why they were chosen as Canada’s national bird, the selection process, their main attributes, their cultural significance, and more. Let’s begin!

Why Was the Gray Jay Chosen as Canada’s National Bird?

Gray Jay eating feed on a feeder

The Gray Jay became Canada’s national bird because the Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) thought it was a great choice, and they had some good explanations for it.

For your reference, here are the main reasons why the Gray Jay was chosen as Canada’s National Bird:

  • Ubiquitous distribution: Generally, Gray Jays are found in every province and territory of Canada. In short, their presence across the entire nation makes them a unifying symbol.
  • Intelligence: As part of the Corvid family, which includes crows and ravens, You can guarantee that Gray Jays are highly clever. This intelligence reflects the value Canadians place on smart, adaptive thinking.
  • Uniqueness: The Gray Jay holds a special status as it is not recognized as an official bird in any other province, territory, or country. Such uniqueness makes these songbirds distinctly Canadian.
  • Resilience: Adapted to survive in harsh Canadian winters, Gray Jays even nest in extremely cold temperatures. This resilience mirrors the tough, enduring spirit of Canadians.
  • Permanent resident: Unlike many birds that migrate, Gray Jays remain in Canada throughout the year. Their constant presence through all seasons represents the steadfast nature of the Canadian spirit.
  • Historical presence: Gray Jays have been part of Canadian history, often seen by explorers and settlers during the nation’s early development. Basically, they represent a living link to Canada’s past.
  • Ecological importance: Gray Jays play a significant role in the boreal forest ecosystem. They represent Canada’s rich natural heritage and the importance of environmental stewardship.
  • Approachability: Known for their friendly nature, Gray Jays usually interact with humans, reflecting the welcoming and hospitable character often associated with Canadians.
  • Non-Threatened Status: Being neither endangered nor hunted, the Gray Jay symbolizes a sustainable aspect of Canada’s wildlife. In other words, these birds embody the country’s commitment to conservation.

As you can tell from the list above, Grey Jays are a perfect symbol for the nation. They represent all the great things Canada is known for, like smarts, being one-of-a-kind, toughness, and a whole lot more.

Take a quick look at this short video to see what Gray Jays are like in action:

National Bird of Canada, Grey Jay or Canadian Jay flying over to land on my hand and enjoy a snack

When Did the Gray Jay Become the National Bird of Canada?

The quest to declare the Gray Jay as Canada’s national bird unofficially began in 2015.

Although the federal government did not formally recognize the initiative, the movement gained momentum among the public and bird enthusiasts.

Out of over 40 bird species considered, only five made it to the final voting stage. These include the Snowy Owl, Common Loon, Canada Goose, Black-capped Chickadee, and the Gray Jay.

Finally, in late 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society made its choice official, announcing the Gray Jay as the national bird in their December 2016 issue of Canadian Geographic.

Note: While still not government-approved, this decision reflects a strong public sentiment and recognition of the Gray Jay’s unique qualities as an emblem of Canada.

How Was the National Bird of Canada Chosen?

Small Gray Jay in a park

In 2015, as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary, the RCGS launched an online contest. This contest invited Canadians to vote for a national bird, engaging nearly 50,000 participants.

As mentioned, five bird species made it to the final round. However, note that the selection wasn’t just a popular vote; it involved a deeper, more informed decision-making process.

In particular, each bird had an ornithologist advocate who highlighted its qualities. This debate allowed the public to understand the significance of all the birds beyond just their appearance or commonality.

Interestingly, however, the Common Loon received the most votes, surpassing the Gray Jay by over 5,000 votes. Yet, the RCGS chose the Gray Jay as the more representative bird of Canada.

Note: Despite some backlash over the decision, the RCGS stood firm in their choice, satisfied that the bird was finally getting the acknowledgment they believed was warranted.

The Gray Jay: Canada’s National Bird

Canada Grey Jay in a fir tree in Algonquin Park Ontario

If you are curious about why the Gray Jay is Canada’s unofficial national bird, let’s check what makes these birds unique. Here, you will discover some key features of Gray Jays, such as their typical behavior and habitat.

Physical Characteristics

Canada Gray Jay at the top of a pine

As its name suggests, the Gray Jay boasts a predominantly gray plumage, making it a standout in the list of common gray-tinted birds.

To be specific, these birds’ back and tail feathers display a medium gray, while the underparts are a lighter shade. Moreover, you will notice that their head features a striking black-and-white pattern, which sets it apart visually.

Weighing between 62 and 82 grams, Gray Jays flaunt short, black bills and large, dark eyes. Their body shape is rounded, and they are known for their thick, fluffy plumage, which helps them endure cold temperatures.

In terms of gender differences, this species is non-sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females look alike.

Habitat and Distribution

When it comes to distribution, Gray Jays breed from Alaska across Canada, reaching as far south as northern California and New England in the United States.

Their breeding grounds span diverse locations, including eastern Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and parts of the Great Plains and Great Lakes states. They mainly stay within these breeding ranges during winter.

However, keep in mind that these birds’ primary habitat is largely within Canada, showcasing their national significance.

On the other hand, Gray Jays typically inhabit mature spruce forests in humid, sub-alpine regions.

Check out this video to get a glimpse of a Gray Jay in its home in the wild:

Fun Fact: Gray Jays typically breed at elevations above 2,000 feet, often found between 3,000 feet and the tree line.

Behavior and Lifestyle

Gray Jays are known for their intense curiosity, especially when it involves finding food. This trait has earned them the nickname “Camp Robber,” as they are often seen boldly interacting with humans in outdoor settings.

My friend once shared her encounter with Gray Jays during a camping trip. She mentioned how these avians were unafraid of approaching their grounds, eagerly eyeing their snacks.

During a hiking expedition, another friend said that these birds would often trail behind their group, hoping for a handout. He recounted how one bird even ventured into their cabin to steal meat.

Fun Fact: Part of their ability to carry off substantial amounts of food lies in their feet. By bringing heavy loads closer to their center of lift, Gray Jays can transport items heavier than expected for their body size.

Conservation Status

The Gray Jay holds a stable conservation status. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, these birds are categorized as “Least Concern.”

This classification indicates that they are not at immediate risk of population decline or habitat loss, which is a reassuring sign for their future.

Basically, their status of being neither jeopardized nor tracked reflects a sustainable aspect of Canada’s wildlife.

Cultural and Symbolic Significance of the Gray Jay

Gray Jay in a mountain

The Gray Jay, known as “Whisky Jack,” holds significant value in aboriginal cultures. To be specific, this name is derived from indigenous languages, which reflect the bird’s deep roots in First Nations traditions.

Furthermore, indigenous communities have long utilized various parts of Gray Jays. Their feathers were used in decoration, while their meat served as a vital food source.

Culturally, these birds are often seen as a symbol of intelligence, adaptability, and survival. They are also regarded as a messenger between humans and the spirit world.

In Canadian history, though, Gray Jays were constant companions to early explorers, trappers, and settlers. Their presence symbolized friendship and strength in the face of harsh conditions.

Fun Fact: A fascinating anecdote from the Gwich’in guides in the Yukon defines this species’s mythical status. They tell stories of how these birds would sing from tree to tree, leading lost and starving hunters back home.

Canada Jay vs. Gray Jay: Are They the Same?

Yes, the Canada Jay and the Gray Jay are indeed the same bird, known scientifically as Perisoreus canadensis. Yet, these avians have experienced a few name shifts over the years, hence the confusion.

Originally known as the Canada Jay in the 1900s, its name was changed to Gray Jay in 1957. This shift was made by the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), which was an authority on bird nomenclature at the time.

However, keep in mind that these birds are now called Canada Jays again. The American Ornithological Society, which took over from the AOU, decided to make this change with a big 9-to-1 vote.

Frequently Asked Questions

Adult Canada Jay with another bird

Can Gray Jays Be Found Outside of Canada?

Gray Jays are not exclusive to Canada; they also reside in Alaska and the western mountains of the United States.

However, bear in mind that most of the Gray Jay population resides within Canada, designating them primarily as Canadian residents.

What Makes the Gray Jay Unique Among Birds?

Among the 40 well-known black and white bird species, Gray Jays are extra special because they’re incredibly smart.

As a member of the Corvid family, studies show they have a body-to-brain ratio nearly equivalent to humans. This is a rare trait that underscores their cognitive abilities.

Does Canada Have a National Animal?

Although Canada does not have an official national bird yet, it does have a national animal: the beaver. This animal played a key role in the country’s development, especially during the fur trade in the 1600s.

Clearly, Gray Jays are more than just birds; they’re a symbol of Canada’s unity and diversity. So, do you have thoughts or questions about these national treasures? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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