Grey Jay: Canada’s National Bird

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Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

Quick: what bird do you think of when you think of Canada?

Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

Quick: what bird do you think of when you think of Canada?
Common Loon – that’s the bird I think of. Indeed, what’s a summer cottage or camping experience without that iconic “laughter of loons” playing over the water and woods? Call me a romantic (I am unapologetically so!) but the loon is “my” Canadian bird.
However, thousands disagree with me!
The National Bird Project
In its recent National Bird Project, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic canvassed Canadians, asking them to vote for a bird species which would become our national bird. The project coincided with Canada’s celebration of its 150th birthday in 2017.
Contenders
I am not alone in thinking the Common Loon represents us well. With 450 or so bird species in Canada, other strong contenders were the Snowy Owl, Canada Goose, and Black-capped Chickadee. Nonetheless, the Grey Jay won, with just shy of 50,000 votes.
What is the Grey Jay like?
The Grey Jay is a member of the Corvid family of birds, which includes Ravens, Crows and other Jays such as the Blue and Stellar. It has two other common names: the Canada Jay, and the Whiskey Jack (from the Cree word, Wisakedjak).
Being a Corvid, the Grey Jay is part of a family that is among the most intelligent of birds. The Canadian Geographic website (canadiangeographic.ca) tells us these birds possess “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.”
Physically, the Grey Jay has a grey body, black nape and bill, black tail with white tips, a light grey (almost white) breast, with a white, rounded head (no crest as in Stellar and Blue Jays). It’s roughly the size of an American Robin: with weight being 70 g, length being 25-33 cm, and wingspan 40-45 cm.
Range
Grey Jays are found in every province and territory of Canada (and in the Outaouais, such as in Gatineau Park) and moreover, they remain here year-round.
Canadian Geographic notes, “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 –30C.”
And the babies hatch in the snow season. Now, that’s really something!
Folk legends
Another great appeal of the Grey Jay is their association with the Ojibwa, Algonquin, Kootenay and other aboriginal peoples. It’s the Cree who call it Wisakedjak, a transformer spirit. Canadian Geographic notes:
“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.”
So, move over migratory Loon. Back off, Snowy Owl. You may be iconic, you may stir our hearts and souls with your wild beauty – but you can’t match this little bird that calls Canada its year-round home, come what may.

Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer, columnist, author and visual
artist. Contact her at
fletcher.katharine@gmail.com