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A Push For The Gray Jay To Take Its Perch As National Bird Of Canada

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We were shocked this past week to learn that Canada doesn't have a national bird. Can you imagine all that landscape, all that nature and no bird to own it? Well, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society has set out to fix that. They've collected nominees. And the proposed winner? The gray jay. We're going to talk now to the man who has lobbied hard for this bird, ornithologist David Bird - no relation. He joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Victoria, British Columbia. Welcome to the program, David.

DAVID BIRD: Hi, how are you?

CHANG: So how come Canada has never had a national bird?

BIRD: Well, it's a good question. But I have a funny feeling that Canadians were kind of lulled into the fact thinking that maybe the common loon, which is Ontario's bird, our most populous province, or the Canada goose, which is out there as well - I'm thinking people probably thought one of those is our national bird or whatever, so everybody kind of got sleepy on it. And then somebody realized, you know, the Canadian Geographical - the Royal Canadian Geographical Society realized that hey, we don't have one, and let's do something about it. And we have a huge birthday coming up in 2017, the 150th birthday of Canada.

CHANG: So - OK, convince me. What is so magnificent about the gray jay?

BIRD: Well, the first thing is it's found from coast to coast to coast in Canada. It's every province, every territory. Its range or distribution practically mirrors our borders with some incursion into Alaska, into the Pacific Northwest. But by and large, it's truly a Canadian bird that way. And it's a very, very hardy bird. It breeds at temperatures of minus 30 below.

CHANG: Oh my goodness.

BIRD: It's incredible that way. It's a very intelligent bird. It's a member of the Corvidae family. That's the crows, rays (ph), magpies and jays. And those are the smartest birds on the planet.

CHANG: Oh, they are?

BIRD: And - yeah, they are. And this bird is so friendly that it will come down out of a tree and sit on your camera, your telescope, your head, your hand or whatever, obviously looking for handouts. But the point is that it's just a very, very friendly bird. And another neat thing about - that a lot of Canadians don't know about them is that as a scientist, I know that many birds cheat on their mates. It's a - kind of a - sort of a...

CHANG: Oh, they're promiscuous.

BIRD: ...Sort of a new discovery in the last few decades. But gray jays apparently don't do that because they don't leave our country in the wintertime like all the other birds do, including the common loon.

CHANG: (Laughter).

BIRD: They're here year-round.

CHANG: They don't have the opportunity to philander.

BIRD: Well, I - that's a (laughter) - that's a very good way of looking at it. But the bottom line is that the mates are there together on the territory year-round. And they fly around together, they sit on perches together and even touch each other.

CHANG: Aw.

BIRD: So you've got loyal, friendly, hardy and intelligent. And to me, that describes the average Canadian.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love that. But, you know, the gray jay actually finished third in the online survey - right? - behind the loon...

BIRD: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...And the snowy owl. How did that happen? Because I thought loons - you know, loons are on the national currency.

BIRD: Yes, they were on our coin the loonie. But the point is this - that contest was never set up to select by democratic process the bird with the most votes to become our national bird. It was set up to basically initiate discussion among Canadians, to present some potential candidates, and then after that consult with experts to come up with the bird that best suited Canadians. And I think the thing that really brought the gray jay into light is that the first runner, the common loon, is Ontario's bird, has been for years, the snowy owl - which I helped make Quebec's official bird - and then there's the black-capped chickadee in fifth place. That's New Brunswick's bird. So why not pick something fresh and new?

CHANG: And so then does all of this mean the gray jay is a shoo-in? How does it become official now?

BIRD: Well, that's the most difficult point. We now have to get the federal government to buy into this and hopefully undertake procedures in Parliament to establish them as our national bird, hopefully in time for our 150th birthday in 2017.

CHANG: Ornithologist David Bird in Victoria, British Columbia. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BIRD: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.