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Biologist Sara Jordan-McLachlan searches for her favourite bird, the chickadee, as the city prepares to find an official bird of the city in Calgary on April 8.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Calgary residents are being asked to choose the city’s official bird – it’s a hotly contested race that has pitted magpie against chickadee, but also is designed to underscore the need to protect urban habitat and wildlife.

A field of 200 local avian candidates was whittled down to 41, and then, with input from local birders, Indigenous communities and nature conservation groups, the final five were chosen: the black-capped chickadee, the black-billed magpie, the red-breasted nuthatch, the northern flicker and the blue jay. All five birds are native to Alberta.

Several, such as the chickadee, are year-round residents, while the northern flickers come and go with the seasons, staying just long enough to satisfy the residency requirement to be considered the city’s official bird.

The vote and official selection is the last remaining requirement of Nature Canada’s Bird Friendly City designation, which was bestowed on Calgary in May, 2021. This program recognizes efforts made by the city and citizens to protect local bird communities, and provides a clear set of standards for what cities need to do to create a safe environment for birds to thrive.

Calgary joined Vancouver, Toronto, and London as one of the the first four cities to achieve this designation, in Canada in 2021. So far in 2022, Regina and Hamilton-Burlington in Ontario have also been recognized.

Calgarians are being encouraged to do their research before voting, with the city setting up a campaign page to ensure that all candidates receive equal opportunity to shine. However, on social media the race appears to be shaping up to be a two-way matchup between #teamchickadee or #teammagpie.

The vote is happening on the city’s website until May 1. The winner will be announced on World Migratory Bird Day on May 14 and will be formally recognized as an official symbol of Calgary at a city council meeting in June.

Sara Jordan-McLachlan, of the group Bird Friendly Calgary, said the designation acknowledges the city’s years-long commitment to making Calgary a welcoming and supportive place for urban wildlife.

“It is a symbol that we care about things outside of ourselves, and outside of just people,” said Ms. Jordan-McLachlan.

Ms. Jordan-McLachlan, who is proudly #teamchickadee, said the official bird vote is a a light-hearted way of getting people thinking about and involved in tackling heavier environmental issues such as climate change.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss can feel helpless,” she said. “Putting a face, in this case a bird, to a problem and providing something for people to think about when they are making choices brings awareness and can be empowering.”

Calgary is well-known for its nature conservation and has been recognized as a leader in bird population protection. The city implemented bird friendly urban design guidelines in March, 2011, which guide the design and operation of buildings and structures, and is further supported by volunteer organizations such as the Calgary Migratory Species Response Team, which monitors and rescues birds and bats injured from flying into windows.

Nature Canada approached Calgary’s local volunteers, council and the city’s BiodiverCity Advisory Committee in November, 2020, to form a core committee that led the application process and will also be responsible for recertification each year.

Andres Jimenez, urban program manager at Birds Canada, said conservation programs such as the Bird Friendly City are valuable tools for bringing together like-minded individuals and raising awareness of issues in the community.

“The value is in the platform being given to the volunteer groups in cities,” said Mr. Jimenez. “There are many grassroots groups, volunteers and NGOs, that are galvanizing toward pursuing a similar agenda.”

Councillor Kourtney Penner, who brought forward a motion to city council to set up the official bird vote, described Calgary as a “bird enthusiastic city,” where the five birds on offer live in natural and urban spaces.

“Encouraging urban biodiversity, and engaging youth in conversation about habitat conservation is critical to the long-term goals of Calgary,” she said in a statement.

The success of the city’s conservation efforts has already inspired communities beyond provincial boundaries, with Nature Regina reaching out to talk about its window-strike initiatives and to exchange ideas and solutions.

Meet the candidates:

Black-capped chickadee: Small in stature, these birds are among the friendliest and buzziest of all the contenders. A year-round resident, you can always count on the chickadee to put in an appearance at the bird feeder or snag some seeds from your hand. #teamchickadee

Black-billed magpie: Magpies, whose feathers are black and white with an iridescent sheen, are the guardians of the neighbourhood. Known to be very vocal and highly sensitive to threats, these birds also use their intelligence and their size to their advantage. A controversial pick in Calgary, which has a love-hate relationship with the bird. #teammagpie

Red-breasted nuthatch: Timid but energetic, this diminutive songbird is not one to be trifled with. The nuthatch is not above stealing nesting materials from other birds (like the chickadee) but will aggressively defend its own nest. #teamredbreastednuthatch

Northern flicker: You won’t see this bird until summer finally arrives, but when it does, this biggest of the woodpeckers is hard to miss. Adaptable and determined, the flicker is the only woodpecker that will hit the ground to get at the ants it loves. #teamflicker

Blue jay: Flashy and fabulous, you can’t miss this bird. The colourful blue jay may be a standout, but it is not just a pretty bird. Like the magpie, the blue jay takes on the role of defender and sends out warning cries for other birds in the area. #teambluejay

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