A Bird With Many Names

A Canada Jay on a branch
A Canada Jay (formerly known as the Gray Jay or Whiskeyjack)

If you have been camping this year, was your picnic table visited by a Gray Jay, a Canada Jay, a Whiskeyjack or a Camp Robber? The answer is almost certainly, yes. These names are used by people to identify the same species, officially known today as the Canada Jay (with the scientific name of Perisoreus canadensis). However, this tenacious white, black and grey bird is blissfully unaware of the debate, among ornithologists, about its English name. The weird part of this story is that birders used the name Canada Jay for the species, for decades, from as far back as 1873. It was in 1957 that the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) voted to change the species’ name to Gray Jay, and for reasons not entirely clear. Meanwhile, this hardy species went about its business, which includes adults pairing for life and eating a range of foods that includes berries, carrion, seeds, insects, small mammals and birds, amphibians and, no doubt, many tidbits that are scavenged or offered at picnic tables across Canada and parts of the U.S. They breed and raise young early in the year and are smart enough to store food year-round by using their sticky saliva to make “food parcels” that they hide in numerous and varied locations.

In 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society decided to run a public contest, to name a national bird for Canada. Although the Gray Jay came third in the competition, ornithologists and others persuaded the society to go with the Gray Jay, a species that lives in all of Canada’s jurisdictions. Some, such as David Bird, of Montreal’s McGill University, argued that the Gray Jay is loyal, tough, intelligent and friendly and was, therefore, the ideal avian icon for Canada. Others, such as Dan Strickland, the retired chief naturalist at Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, went further by stating that it is entirely inappropriate for a self-appointed foreign body, such as the AOU, to provide the name of Canada’s potential national bird.

In 2017, the Society of Canadian Ornithologists voted to reclaim the name of Canada Jay, and many ornithologists were hoping that the Canadian parliament would announce the species as Canada’s national bird, as part of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations and reflections. It wasn’t to be … and perhaps the story stops there. But wait! One of the other popular names for the species, Whiskeyjack, is apparently an English name derived from a Cree (and other Algonquian family languages) name, Wisakedjak, a sacred trickster figure and even one of the creators of the world. The name “whisker jack” appeared in English literature in 1740, a hundred years before the Canada Jay first appeared. Should we now rethink this bird’s name and dig a little deeper into the history of the names that we give birds and other wildlife? This debate will no doubt continue. The Yukon Bird Club is a not-for-profit organization that works to promote awareness and appreciation of Yukon birds and their habitat through education and advocacy activities. To find out more about the club and become a member, visit yukonbirds.ca.

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