Canada Is Agonizing About Choosing A National Bird

Nov 17, 2016

The humble, hardy gray jay is poised to become the national bird of Canada — and that's causing quite a flap.

Canadian Geographic has officially recommended that the bird, also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay, become a national symbol. It beat out winged heavies such as the black-capped chickadee, the Canada goose, the snowy owl and the crowd-favorite common loon.

This comes after a process lasting nearly two years that included an online poll and a heated public debate. Canadian Geographic hopes the government will adopt its recommendation in celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017. It says the choice between the country's 450 species of birds "was made neither lightly nor quickly."

But the pick is controversial, prompting headlines such as this one in The Toronto Star: " 'The gray what?' Outcry as gray jay named Canada's national bird." Hashtags such as #teamloon are full of outrage and sadness. "Unlike Canada ... the gray jay is drab and not terribly photogenic," wrote the Ottawa Citizen in an unflattering article titled, "7 embarrassing photos that gray jays don't want you to see."

It was a long, heated selection process. Backers for the different birds duked it out in a "battle royal" debate, streamed live, where they mulled questions such as "Is the cry of the loon a hauntingly beautiful lament or the stuff of children's nightmares?" and "Is the Canada goose a messy, ill-tempered brute or a unifying symbol that is also surprisingly delicious?"

Canadian Geographic extolled the virtues of the gray jay in its article explaining the choice:

  • It "is found in every province and territory, but is not already a provincial or territorial bird."
  • The "vast majority of its range is in Canada" and none has been recorded outside North America.
  • They are historically "the companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers and voyageurs."
  • They are the only Canadian bird "commonly referred to by a traditional Indigenous name": the Cree name Wisakedjak, which has over time become "whiskey jack."
  • They "are astonishingly good at making the most of even the coldest, darkest months" and can nest as soon as February.

It looks pretty friendly to us:

Part of the controversy is about the selection process — the gray jay came in third in the online poll, behind the common loon and the snowy owl. The selection committee also weighed the opinions of ornithologists, conservationists, cultural experts and indigenous peoples before they made their choice.

Some bird enthusiasts wish Canada would stick with the results of the popular vote. But Aaron Kylie, an editor for Canadian Geographic, told The Globe and Mail that third place is "pretty good for a bird that is not yet a household name."

"We didn't just follow the popular vote, because also, to be frank, I don't think that we should decide a national symbol based on a popularity contest," Kylie told the newspaper. He pointed to what some see as a cautionary tale, from the U.K.: "If we did those kind of things, that's how you end up with Boaty McBoatface. It's not really the right way to go about something that's so serious."

If the gray jay is confirmed, it will join the beaver as a national symbol of Canada. However, the beaver has also recently been the subject of nationwide debate. As the BBC reported, a conservative senator suggested that the humble beaver was passe; what Canada needed was a majestic symbol — the polar bear.

The beaver has held on to its spot thus far.

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