Is that a Gray Jay or a Canada Jay?


Everyone called this friendly bird a Canada Jay when I was a boy. Locals called  it a Whiskeyjack and one year at YMCA camp my cabin was called “the Whiskeyjacks”. They are found year round from Muskoka north into the boreal forests of Northern Ontario,

Somewhere along the way, the name was changed to “Gray Jay”. My 1980 field guide gives it both names.


This isn’t the only bird name change during my lifetime.

The Slate-coloured Junco has become the Dark-eyed Junco.

Dark-eyed junco

The Rock Dove has become the Rock Pigeon.

Rock Pigeon

The Old Squaw has become more politically correct and is now called the Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed duck (male)

What we called the Sparrow Hawk is now called the American Kestrel.

American Kestrel (photo: wikimedia)

The Northern Raven is now the Common Raven.

Common Ravens in Nipigon, Ontario

The Solitary Vireo is now called the Blue-headed Vireo.

Blue-headed vireo

The Baltimore Oriole became the Northern Oriole and is now the Baltimore Oriole once again.

Baltimore Orioles (male)

The Myrtle Warbler is now the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The Bronzed Grackle is now the Common Grackle.

Common Grackle

etcetera etcetera.

How do these names get changed?

There is a group called the AOS (American Ornithological Society) which meets regularly and name changes are part of their labours.

Here are the proposals for their recent 2018 meeting:

01 02 Split Pacific Swift Apus pacificus into four species
02 05 Restore Canada Jay as the English name of Perisoreus canadensis
03 13 Recognize two genera in Stercorariidae
04 15 Split Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) into two species
05 19 Split Pseudobulweria from Pterodroma
06 25 Add Tadorna tadorna (Common Shelduck) to the Checklist
07 27 Add three species to the U.S. list
08 29 Change the English names of the two species of Gallinula that occur in our
09 32 Change the English name of Leistes militaris to Red-breasted Meadowlark
10 35 Revise generic assignments of woodpeckers of the genus Picoides
11 39 Split the storm-petrels (Hydrobatidae) into two families

Will the Gray Jay may become the Canada Jay once again?

Here is a small part of the eight page proposal:

Restore Canada Jay as the English name of Perisoreus canadensis

The name “Canada Jay” dates back at least to Swainson and Richardson (1831) and
was the official vernacular species name used for Perisoreus canadensis in the first two
AOU checklists (1886, 1895). In its 3rd (1910) and 4th (1931) Checklists, however, the
AOU did not recognize overall vernacular species names for polytypic species and
instead used common names exclusively for subspecies. Thus, during the 47-year
period (1910-1956) covered by the 3rd and 4th Checklists, “Canada Jay” explicitly
referred to the nominate subspecies P. c. canadensis rather than the species P.
canadensis. Only in 1957, with publication of the 5th Checklist, did the AOU return to its
original policy of having overall common names for polytypic species. For P.
canadensis, however, the AOU did not restore the original name “Canada Jay”. Instead,
it picked “Gray Jay”, the English name of another P. canadensis subspecies (P. c.
griseus), to become the new English name for the species.
This decision provoked some unpublished grumbling among Canadian birders and
ornithologists (e.g., Earl Godfrey: pers. comm. to MG), but otherwise was generally
accepted under the assumption that some compelling reason(s) must have justified
such a change. One guess occasionally heard is that “Gray Jay” was chosen because it
was descriptive, was in line with the English names of other jays (Blue Jay, Green Jay,
etc.) and that some new common name had to be coined following the lumping (AOU
1944) of P. canadensis and a west coast form, P. obscurus. This was superficially
plausible because these two species, at the time of the lump, are widely believed to
have had the English names “Canada Jay” and “Oregon Jay” and the AOU later
adopted a guideline (AOU 1983) suggesting that when two taxa with different English
names are lumped, a new name should be found for the merged taxon (although in
practice there are exceptions to this guideline). Some of our own published work (e.g.,
Strickland and Ouellet 2011) has been consistent with this view, which we argue is
erroneous (see below), and it is implicitly supported by a website still linked to the
AOU/AOS home page: “The History of North American Bird Names in the American
Ornithologists’ Union Checklists 1886-2000” ( This
site makes no distinction between monotypic and polytypic species, fails to recognize
that the latter did not have common species names in the 3rd (AOU 1910) and 4th (AOU
1931) Checklists, and clearly implies that “Gray Jay” came into existence only in 1957
when “Canada Jay” and “Oregon Jay” disappeared.

Our proposal to restore “Canada Jay” as the common name of P. canadensis is based
largely on three facts: (1) both “Gray Jay” and “Canada Jay” were used concurrently for
different subspecies of what were formerly P. obscurus and P. canadensis, respectively,
at a time when common names were not applied to overall species names. The 1948
proposal to adopt “Gray Jay” as the overall common species name had the laudable
intent of avoiding geographic awkwardness in subspecies names but lost its justification
with the 1954 decision not to have subspecific common names. (2) Failure to rescind
the substitution of “Gray Jay” for “Canada Jay” ended up violating another AOU
nomenclatural principle, namely the retention of traditional vernacular names whenever
possible. (3) The strikingly parallel events in which the AOU first imposed “Graybreasted
Jay” in 1983 in place of “Mexican Jay,” and then reversed its decision in 1995,
without the trigger of a taxonomic change in either case, established a particularly
relevant precedent for acceptance of our present proposal.
In addition to the above, a distinctly unique additional matter needs to be considered by
the Committee when weighing our proposal to restore “Canada Jay”. We return here to
the possible designation of P. canadensis as Canada’s national bird. Admittedly this is
not a sure thing but if Canada does so act, it will be in Canada’s clear interest to
simultaneously declare that the national bird shall, in English, be called “Canada Jay”
whether or not the AOS keeps “Gray Jay”. But having Canada go its own way would
clearly not be in the interests of the AOS. What principle would AOS be defending if it
insisted that “Gray Jay” be maintained?
We recommend that the NACC proactively change the official English name back to
“Canada Jay”. That’s what the AOU should have done in the first place before the 5th
edition was published in 1957. Such action would be a “win-win” for everybody.

We are back to Canada Jay once more!

Miles Hearn




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