An American ornithological group righted an egregious wrong when it restored the proper name of our (still unofficial) national bird
An American ornithological group rights an egregious wrong by restoring the proper name for Canada’s (still unofficial) national bird
WHISKEY JACK, GRAY JAY, CANADA JAY. AFTER YEARS OF
debate and dissent, which of those three names has finally and definitively been given to the quintessential Canadian bird, Perisoreus canadensis?
While Whiskey Jack, is well known among certain portions of the Canadian population, many are unfamiliar with it. And worse, many would likely associate the name with the famous beverage though the fact is the origin of the name is unrelated. The earliest recorded use of the name “Whisker-jack” was in 1743 though by 1831 it had become known as the “Whiskey-jack” among prominent taxonomists. According to Michel Gosselin, retired Curator of Birds at the Museum of Man and Nature in Ottawa, in the spring issue of Quebec Oiseaux, some of the commonly believed derivations of “Whiskey-jack” arose from various First Nations names, e.g. Weskuchanis meaning “little blacksmith” in Cree, Wisakedjak meaning “prankster” or “trickster” also in Cree, and Gwiingwishii, an Ojibway name that sounds like “Whiskey Jack” to English ears.
And then there is Gray Jay (not “Grey Jay”). It rose to prominence in 1957 when the American Ornithological Society (then known as the American Ornithologists’ Union) decided to establish English names for 299 bird species of North America for its definitive checklist. The fact that they had adopted the American spelling particularly stuck in the craw of Dan Strickland, an Ontario ornithologist and Canada’s leading authority on this species. Recently, he looked into why the name was changed from “Canada Jay,” the traditional name that had been in use for at least 185 years. He spent hours examining the old files of the Checklist Committee stored in the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C. That’s where he discovered that 60 years ago, the then American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist Committee had had no valid reason for imposing “Gray Jay,” the moniker of an obscure West Coast subspecies, as the new name for this iconic Canadian bird. Strickland first wrote an excellent and detailed article on the subject in the April 2017 issue of Ontario Birds. He subsequently authored a proposal to restore the name Canada Jay and submitted it to the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society in December 2017.
On June 21, 2018, the AOS issued its 59th Supplement to the Checklist of North American Birds. In it they announced that the Canada Jay was getting its old name back. This was, of course, fantastic news for Team Canada Jay, a loose group of bird-lovers across Canada, that had worked hard lobbying the federal government to make this bird a national symbol along with the beaver, the maple tree, and our two official games, ice hockey and lacrosse. While that campaign seems to have stalled in the face of a curious indifference and inaction by the Federal government, an unofficial group of advocates led by me and including painter Robert Bateman, have been buoyed by the name change.
With the vast majority of its range falling within Canada’s borders and found in every province and territory, Canada Jays are friendly and inquisitive, readily coming to the hand; highly intelligent by bird standards; and adaptable and tough enough to forego migration and breed through our harsh winter weather. You couldn’t choose a better National Bird for our country. Is anyone in Ottawa listening?—