Why the gray jay is the perfect Canadian bird

Canadian Geographic magazine’s suggestion ruffled feathers but it’s a perfect choice for a national bird of Canada, says UAlberta bird expert.


The gray jay is tough, resourceful and not afraid of the cold—just like Canadians, eh?

Canadian Geographic magazine introduced the gray jay as its choice for the national bird on its website earlier today. Surprisingly, Canada doesn’t have an official bird, which is something the magazine wanted to change, creating a project for Canadians to vote on it.

Although the choice ruffled the feathers of some people who didn’t know the gray jay even existed, University of Alberta bird expert and author John Acorn said the bird is as quintessentially Canadian as maple syrup.

“It’s wearing a dark gray toque with white earmuffs. That’s Canadian!” said Acorn, well-known for hosting Acorn, the Nature Nut, a television show in the late 90s. “It’s also easy to identify personally with the gray jay. We are the type of people who could live in the forest—we are tough, we are smart, we are cold hardy.”

Unlike its close cousins the magpie, the crow, the raven and the blue jay, which like to hang around urban backyards, power lines and garbage dumpsters, the gray jay isn’t likely to be spotted in Edmonton, Acorn said. But drive a half-hour west or north of the city, take a hike and you’ll find them in Alberta’s boreal forests. They can be found in the foothills, the mountains and the national parks. They have a geographic range that extends into the Northwest Territories.

“They have this habit of showing up, they find you to figure out who you are, and if you have anything good, they’ll take it!”

About the size of a blue jay and “quite snappy in appearance” thanks to its charcoal feathers and handsome markings, the bird is also recognizable by its chattery call, laced with soft warbling notes.

Also known as the whiskeyjack, the Canada jay or the camp robber, the gray jay dines on plant and animal matter alike and is a smart hoarder of food. Its scientific name, Perisoreus canadensis, translates loosely into “Canadian heaper-upper,” said Acorn. Natural survivors, “they have an incredible memory for where they put all their stuff. They know their home turf really well.”

About two million of the birds are found in Canada, where they live year-round in every province—unlike birds more commonly linked to Canadian identity such as the snowy owl or the loon, which also live in Europe and Asia.

“The gray jay stays home. Our gray jay really is our gray jay,” said Acorn.

And like most Canadians, the bird—first discovered in the 1700s by a Swedish taxonomist—copes well with our winters. Undeterred by the weather, it begins nesting early in the year.

While the magazine’s designation of the gray jay as Canada’s bird is informal, it does reflect particular points of pride we have as Albertans, Acorn said.

“We can symbolize the gray jay in the same sense that we identify with Banff, Jasper and our forests as part of our identity. There’s an emotional logic to it.”

For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.