This painting of a pair of Canada Jays at the nest was done to help promote this species as the national bird of Canada. It appears in the back of a colourfully illustrated and fact-filled book by David Bird and a group of other experts, entitled The Canada Jay as Canada’s National Bird?, published last June 9, with a copy given to every one of Canada’s 338 federal Members of Parliament.
This is one of three contemporary paintings in the book, the other two by Robert Bateman showing a Canada Jay, each in the same pose, but with two entirely different settings, one in a boreal forest – Canada has the largest boreal forest in the world in serious need of protection from climate change and environmental degradation – and the other emphasizing the bird’s endearing habit of interacting with humans as one perches upon a wrangler’s ax imbedded in a tree, awaiting lunch scraps.
Canada Jays will often fly to your open hand for a scrap of food, and colder than frost is the heart not moved by their interest, and trust, in us. And the book is enhanced by an elegant design emphasizing the Canada Jay as “a cultural bridge builder and symbol of environmental stewardship,” by Anishinabek artist, Mark Nadjiwan. The book is full of delightful photographs, plus historical illustrations, and photos of other candidates for the honour of being designated our national bird (see www.canadajay.org).
Disclaimer: neither I nor any of the book’s contributors or the project’s advocates have a financial interest in it but are all part of a growing list of Canadians supporting the naming of a national bird.
Apparently 106 of the world’s 195 countries have national birds, but not us! Unlike the Common Loon (provincial bird of Ontario, and the popular choice in a national questionnaire) or the also popular Snowy Owl, the Canada Jay does not represent any province or territory, although found in all thirteen of them, not so much in the cities and human population centers, but in the spruce and birch dominated forests, the land of moose and beaver, wolf and raven, the land that in my mind defines my country better than any cityscape.
Dr. Bird created a list of 18 good reasons that the Canada Jay is top choice, including having most of its range in Canada, being a year-round resident and popular with those familiar with it. As a child I knew and was fascinated by the Canada Jay, and then abruptly and to my annoyance, the “official” name, as determined by the American Ornithologists Union (now the American Ornithological Society) was changed to “Gray Jay” in 1957. The whole story is described in the book and is too long to get into here, but the good news is that the original (and, based on the Society’s on rules, correct) name was finally restored in 2018. While the bird has dozens of colloquial names the best known (and one I often use myself) is “whiskeyjack”, apparently derived from two Cree words referring to the bird in different dialects.
While two of my own choices, the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Boreal Chickadee, were not even in the running, I’m extremely happy with the Canada Jay, and can only echo the words of Robert Bateman, writing in the foreword: “As a Canadian, I would be proud to be represented by such a bird.” Me too. They are a hardy species, starting to nest when temperatures not uncommonly can reach minus 30 Celsius (-22 F) or colder. They are, in common with the other members of the crow, raven and jay family to which they belong, noted for their intelligence. And while they are modest of hue, that gentle blend of various shades of grey, white and black and the softness of their plumage imparts an overall charming elegance to their appearance that, I, as an artist, never tire of seeing and portraying. I have shown the birds in April, when it might still snow in their forest homes, and the young are soon to leave the nest. Dan Strickland, the world authority on Canada Jays, kindly provided guidance for this painting. It is in oils on birch panel and is 20 by 15 inches.
If you are Canadian, and want to support the Canada Jay as our National Bird, send a hand-written note (no postage required) to your MP or MLA, who can be found here: https://www.ourcommons.ca/members/en. An e-mail will do, but hand written is better.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada