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The Gray Jay

Issue 4NatureNature Issue 4Species

On November 16, after more than a year of debate, Canadian Geographic named the gray jay the national bird of Canada —and the outcry could be heard from coast to coast. Canadians claimed that they had never seen or even heard of the gray jay but when you get to know this little bird a bit better, it becomes obvious why the gray jay was the chosen to represent Canada and the people that live here. 

The gray jay, or perisoreus canadensis, also known as the Canada jay or whisky jack, is a small, gray and white bird with a long tail feather, thick plumage and a short beak that can be found in the boreal forests of Canada and in some parts of Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. One of the reasons that the gray jay was chosen as our national bird is that it can be found in each of our provinces and territories and, unlike the loon, the snowy owl, the black-capped chickadee and the blue jay, the gray jay is not already the official bird of any province or territory.

Photo taken by: Derek CG Photography

Also, unlike most bird species in Canada, the gray jay is not a migratory bird but a resident bird that stays here through the winter, despite unrelenting cold and snow. When the Canada goose heads south in search of warmer weather in the fall, the gray jay starts to collect and hide food for winter. And when the Canada goose has not even begun its journey home in the spring, the gray jay has already begun to nest. Some gray jays even begin nesting—building thick, warm nests with feathers and bits of fur—and laying eggs—three or four pale, speckled eggs—as early as February, when there is still a thick blanket of snow on the forest floor.

The gray jay is also said to be one of the smartest birds in the world. Again, unlike many other species of birds, the gray jay does not store their food in one spot. Instead, it store its food, consisting of seeds, berries, insects, rodents, amphibians and other small mammals, in many hiding places throughout the forest, such as behind a piece of bark or under some lichen, to protect against theft. Even more impressive is how well the gray jay is able to recall the locations of its many winter food stores. They can make hundreds of food stores each day and often have tens of thousands of stores scattered throughout a forested area.

The gray jay also has a reputation for being a mischievous but friendly. Much like black-capped chickadees, gray jays will often eat seeds and other snacks out of generous hands and will even pester campers and follow hikers and skiers down trails in regional, provincial and national parks. In history, gray jays were said to have been the companions of Indigenous hunters and gatherers and there are even some guides in our northern territories who tell stories of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead lost hunters to their homes. In one Anishinaabe story, the spirit Nanabozho takes the form of the gray jay and plays a prank on two men to teach them a lesson. Nanabozho then transforms back into human form but leaves the bird with a playful, mischievous spirit. Even the other name for the gray jay, whisky jack, is an English interpretation of the Ojibwe word wisikejack or “mischievous prankster”.

Even when the gray jay is not being a trickster, it still has much to teach us. The gray jay is, so far, not an endangered species but it is being impacted by climate change. As the temperature of our climate continues to rise, more and more plant and animal species are being forced to head north. For the gray jay, which relies on cold temperatures to preserve its food through the winter, this shift is imminent and, already, gray jay populations are on the decline, according to research from Algonquin Park. According to this research, in the last 25 years, the gray jay population has decreased by more than 50 percent and habitat that used to be home to many gray jays has been abandoned as remaining birds head north in search of colder climates.

Smart, mischievous, friendly and stubbornly dedicated to suffering in the cold—they may be as iconic as the geese seen flying overhead in their familiar formation or the loons seen skimming the surface of so many lakes but the gray jay might just be an even more Canadian bird.

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Last modified: September 5, 2017

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