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The snowy owl is the provincial bird of Quebec. McGill wildlife biology professor Dr. David Bird said his greatest fear is that people will leap to pick obvious species like the Canada goose or the loon and, in the end, the Canadian Geographic Society will be obligated to persuade politicians of the merits of an unsuitable bird as our national symbol. (FELIX ORDONEZ/REUTERS)
The snowy owl is the provincial bird of Quebec. McGill wildlife biology professor Dr. David Bird said his greatest fear is that people will leap to pick obvious species like the Canada goose or the loon and, in the end, the Canadian Geographic Society will be obligated to persuade politicians of the merits of an unsuitable bird as our national symbol. (FELIX ORDONEZ/REUTERS)

Race is on to pick the national bird of Canada Add to ...

What bird possesses the personality that speaks to the spirit of Canada in the same way the bald eagle exemplifies the resilience of our neighbours to the south?

This country, home to more than 450 species of birds, is among just a handful of nations that have not selected one as a national symbol.

Yes, we have the beaver and the maple leaf. But we do not have a bird.

So the Royal Canadian Geographical Society is asking Canadians to weigh in online and choose the species of winged creature that is worthy of the national designation. The society will then lobby the federal government to follow through with an Act of Parliament as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017.

The project was launched in the January issue of the Canadian Geographic magazine, and Nick Walker, the managing editor, says the response has been “overwhelming.”

“People like to identify traits like intelligence, sociability, friendliness, curiosity, aggression and nobility,” Mr. Walker said, “and all of those things that, I think, can be accurate when looking at any number of birds.”

The magazine asked several well-known authors to expound upon their own personal choice for national bird.

Noah Richler picked the raven. He called it “resourceful, a survivor, as the territory compels most Canadians to be.”

Charlotte Gray favoured the ospreys that nest in the white pine near her family’s cottage south of Ottawa.

Will Ferguson rallied behind the Canada goose, a “bad-tempered” bird that has the kind of attitude he wants in a national emblem.

With more than 4,000 votes logged on the Canadian Geographic website, the leader is the common loon – a result that is not unexpected given its prominence on our currency.

To which David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University and an ornithologist who, for 28 years, wrote a column about birds for the Montreal Gazette, says horse feathers.

The obvious choice for national bird, Dr. Bird said, is the gray jay.

It is not resplendent like a peacock (the national bird of India), or imposing like the Andean condor (the national bird of Bolivia), or colourful like the crimson sunbird (the national bird of Singapore.)

It is grey. Isn’t that rather fitting? asks Dr. Bird. “Aren’t Canadians accused of being a bland boring people?”

But the gray jay, sometimes called the whiskey jack, is also one of the smartest birds on the planet, he said. And it is friendly. Skiers who come across them on trails through the country’s woodlands find them gently petitioning for food.

The gray jay’s French name is le Mésangeai du Canada.

It lives in every province and territory of Canada, but hardly at all in the United States, Dr. Bird said. It is not an endangered species, so Canada would not risk finding itself birdless in the near future. It is not a target of hunters, so it is not going to end up on Canadian dinner plates.

“It is also a very hardy bird. It is adapted for living in very cold regions, like we Canadians,” he said. And it does not migrate. “Not all Canadians do the snowbird thing. A lot of us love the snow and love enjoying our winters.”

The gray jay is a resident of Canada’s boreal forests, which are under environmental pressure, Dr. Bird said. “Having this as our official bird, I think it will help get Canadians to make the effort to go to the boreal forest, appreciate it, and want to save it,” he said.

But what about the loon?

That’s already Ontario’s provincial bird, Dr. Bird said. “Ontario will be smug about it and say, ‘Our provincial bird is now the national bird.’ But they are not going to give it up.”

And the snowy owl? It belongs to Quebec.

Canada geese? They are culled in the United States because they are such a nuisance, Dr. Bird said. “They are basically pooping machines.”

Charlotte Gray’s osprey? “The osprey is regularly robbed by the bald eagle of their fish,” Dr. Bird said. “Do we want a bird that is being robbed by the United States all the time?”

Many people have been surprised to learn that Canada does not have a national bird, Mr. Walker said. But the passion Canadians feel for their favourite bird comes through loud and clear in the comments attached to the online votes, he said.

Like the one from Connor Albanese, a seven-year-old who lives in Rockwood, Ont. He argues for the great blue heron. “It is the best bird,” he writes. “It has fiery eyes for hunting frogs, fish, snakes, mice and bugs.”

Dr. Bird said his greatest fear is that people will leap to pick obvious species like the Canada goose or the loon and, in the end, the Canadian Geographic Society will be obligated to persuade politicians of the merits of an unsuitable bird as our national symbol.

“Just because people vote democratically,” he said, “doesn’t mean they always make the right choice.”

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