Meet our national bird: the gray jay

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The gray jay, also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay, is Canadian Geographic’s official recommendation for National Bird of Canada.

  • The gray jay is found in every province and territory, but is not already a provincial or territorial bird. Several of the other front-runners in the National Bird Project, meanwhile, already had this designation, including the common loon (Ontario), the snowy owl (Quebec), the black-capped chickadee (New Brunswick) and the common raven (Yukon).
  • Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.
  • Historically the companions of First Nations hunters and trappers and European explorers and voyageurs, gray jays are today common visitors in mining and lumber camps and research stations, and follow hikers and skiers down trails in provincial, territorial and national parks.
  • Gray jays are year-round residents of Canada — remaining in the northern forest when the majority of loons and Canada geese have flown south and even snowy owls have descended from the Arctic — and they are astonishingly good at making the most of even the coldest, darkest winter months. These tough birds are unique for nesting as early as February, while the forests are still thick with snow, and have been recorded incubating eggs in snowstorms and at temperatures as cold as -30 C.
  • They are important to Indigenous Peoples. The common moniker “whiskey jack” has nothing to do with the grain-based alcohols, but is rather an anglicization of the Cree Wisakedjak and similar variations used by nations in the Algonquian language family, which makes the gray jay Canada’s only bird commonly referred to by a traditional Indigenous name.
  • In some traditional Ojibwa stories, the trickster Nanabozho takes the gray jay’s form and leaves it with a playful, generous spirit. But it’s to the Cree peoples especially that Wisakedjak is a shape-shifter who frequently appears as the gray jay, a benevolent trickster, teacher and messenger of the forest. To many western First Nations, the appearance of a gray jay in the morning is a good omen, and its chattering and whistles an early warning to hunters of nearby predators. There are even Gwich’in guides in the Yukon who tell of gray jays singing from tree to tree to lead a lost and starving hunter home.

read more: www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay
article: Nick Walker
photo: Tony Joyce/Canadian Geographic Photo Club

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