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Canada Gray jay to reclaim its Canadian identity with name change

Efforts by a group of Canadian birders to change the name of the gray jay – known as the Canada jay since the early 1800s but changed in 1957 – are taking flight.

Alexander Kolomietz/GETTY IMAGES

It may not be our national bird quite yet, but the Canada jay is sure starting to sound like it.

An effort by a group of devoted Canadian birders to make a smart and hearty corvid the National Bird of Canada took a significant flight forward this spring with the restoration of Perisoreus Canadensis – known for the past 60 years as the gray jay – to its original name, the Canada jay.

“What could be a more perfect bird for Canada, besides all the other reasons why it makes a great choice, than having it named after our country? ” said Professor David Bird, a B.C. ornithologist who is among those leading the effort to have the jay formally recognized as a national symbol. He says 2018, the Year of the Bird, is a natural time to do it.

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“It just for me is a no-brainer,” he says.

Although known as the Canada jay since the early 1800s, the bird became the gray jay in 1957 and remained that way until a proposal to the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society last year.

The proposal was authored and spearheaded by Dan Strickland, an ornithologist and Canada jay enthusiast. Mr. Strickland could not be reached for comment on Monday and Prof. Bird said he believed Mr. Strickland was out engaged in his Canada jay research.

The name change will be announced in the July supplement of the American Ornithological Society’s publication, The Auk. But Prof. Bird said news is already “spreading like wildfire” in Canadian birding communities.

The idea of a national bird gained prominence after a 2015 contest by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. The gray jay did not initially win the contest, but placed in the top five and was later chosen as the winner. Prof. Bird says other finalists – the common loon, the snowy owl and the black-capped chickadee – should not even have been in the running given that they are already provincial birds and that the remaining top-five finalist, “ugh, the Canada Goose,” is not a good choice to represent the country.

(“Over my dead body,” Prof. Bird said.)

Instead, Prof. Bird and those on “Team Canada Jay” say there could be no other choice than the Canada jay. As Prof. Bird argues in documents such as Why Canada Should Have a National Bird and the 17-point The Canada Jay For Canada’s National Bird, the jay is clever and tough, doesn’t migrate in the winter, can breed in frigid temperatures and will draw Canadians to the boreal forests and parks in which it lives.

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“I just feel that this bird so embodies Canadian personality and psyche,” he says. “It’s so friendly, it’s intelligent, it’s hearty. And that, to me, epitomizes the Canadian spirit.”

The birds also have a strong connection to First Nations culture and are sometimes called whisky jacks or whiskey jacks, a name derived from Wisakedjak, meaning prankster or trickster.

The Canada jay has some heavy hitters in its nest, including both prominent ornithologists and bird lovers such as Robert Bateman and Elizabeth May. But it won’t be official unless the government declares it so and Prof. Bird says recent letters have yielded a disappointing string of responses, saying there were no plans to adopt any new national symbols.

But birders don’t give up quite so easily.

Prof. Bird says he’s prepared to walk across Canada and gather a million signatures for the Canadian jay, an effort he’s already dubbed “The Great Canadian Jay Walk.”

“I don’t want to have to do that,” he said. “But I would do it if I have to because I just believe in it so much.”

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