I’M OUT ON a patio, enjoying a nice healthy snack, when this bird lands on the table, bold as can be.
“Sorry,” it says. “Is this seat taken?”
I was taken aback. “Pardon?”
“I prefer Canada jay,” it replied.
I shook my head. “Not since 1957.”
That’s the year the American Ornithological Union decided the Canada jay, as it had been known for at least 150 years, should be called the gray jay. Note that they even spelled it the ‘Merican way, gray with an “a.” Oh, the indignity. Might as well have given it a little MAGA hat and a handgun.
What did that leave us as an avian emblem, the bird that’s synonymous with the Great White North? The Canada goose. Great. The Americans get the bald eagle, and we’re stuck with a giant flying rat, a great honking crapbag good for nothing except breeding, wiping out crops and preventing you from walking barefoot in the park ever again.
“Sorry,” my bird said (again), “but you’re wrong.”
“The Canada jay name is being reinstated,” it said, puffing out its little chest.
This — news flash — is true. After 60 years living under a nom de plume (as it were) the Canada jay is getting its name back. The North American Classification Committee, the successor to the AOU, has just voted to make the change, thanks to a campaign led by Ontario’s Dan Strickland (who, as coincidence would have it, is currently up Mount Washington studying our Vancouver Island jays to see how they differ from those on the mainland — my guess: Ours are more likely to ski, do yoga and oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
News of the renaming won’t be official until July, but is a big enough deal in birding circles that it has already been winging around faster than a white-throated needletail (top speed: 169 km/h).
It’s particularly thrilling to Victoria’s David Bird (let’s pause briefly to acknowledge the awesomeness of living in a city where two of the best-known ornithologists are named David Bird and Ann Nightingale) because restoration of the title is a big boost for the campaign to have the Canada jay designated as our national bird.
Bird, emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, is among those urging Ottawa to make such a move. With 2018 being the International Year of the Bird (the feathered one) and Vancouver hosting the once-every-four-years International Ornithological Congress (“It’s the Olympics of bird study”) in August, Bird (the flightless one) thinks the timing would be perfect to give a bird the same sort of status that Canada has afforded its official animal (the beaver), equine (the Canadian horse), tree (the maple) and sports (hockey and beer pong).
He doesn’t want to force any particular species on the feds, but happens to agree with the Canadian Geographic Society, which has been championing the Canada jay.
Bird has a long list of arguments in the Canada jay’s favour, including its presence in all 13 provinces and territories, its intelligence and its sociability. Unlike many other species, it stays in Canada all winter instead of snowbirding south to Palm Springs or Phoenix. It figures strongly in Indigenous lore as a people-friendly prankster; the whisky jack nickname comes from the Cree wisakedjak.
Also, the Canada jay isn’t already the official bird of a province, unlike the snowy owl (Quebec), black-capped chickadee (New Brunswick), or common loon (Ontario, where polls show it could become premier after the June 7 election), so there’s no need to worry about ruffling regional feathers or sending Alberta (the uncommon loon) smashing wine bottles again.
“I’m totally inoffensive,” said my bird, pecking away at a doughnut hole. “Could I be more Canadian?”
Alas, so far there has been little indication of Ottawa being willing to give wings to the national bird notion.
“That’s OK,” said the Canada jay. “I know who I am.”
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.