It's about the birds
By Jim Poling
Published Feb. 2, 2017
Canada is a country of great diversity, so it is odd that we might still want to single out anything as especially special in identifying our nationality.
Yes, we decided long ago that the maple leaf and the beaver are national symbols. But do we really need anything else, like a national bird?
That is the question now facing the federal government, which has been petitioned by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to officially declare a national bird this year, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Two years ago the Society’s magazine, Canadian Geographic, began a project to select a national bird, inviting Canadians to vote for their favourites. It is not clear how many Canadians participated, however the Society announced in November a decision: the whiskey jack, or gray jay, should be named Canada’s official national bird.
The whiskey jack received fewer votes than the loon and the snowy owl. Geographic, however, rejected those two because they already are provincial symbols: Ontario (loon), Quebec (snowy owl).
The feds now must decide whether we really need to have a national bird. Or should it forget the idea and get on with important matters such as infrastructure decay, the drug abuse crisis, the collapsing middle class, criminal electricity rates and planning how to deal with the damaging effects of a changing climate.
Only a fool would enter the national bird controversy, which of course does not rule out the politicians jumping in.
Firstly, naming national things is passé. That is something countries do when they are trying to define who they are and what they stand for. We know what Canada is and what it stands for and have got along for 150 years without a national bird, and without a national flower as it happens.
Secondly, getting people to agree on anything these days is like trying to corral chipmunks. Picture the circus in the House of Commons as MPs argue the fine points of declaring the whiskey jack our national bird.
Some MPs would argue that both of the bird’s official names – whiskey jack and gray jay – don’t even use Canadian spellings. Gray and whiskey are American spellings. In this country it’s whisky and grey.
(Incidentally, whiskey jack is taken from Wiskedjak, one of many spellings of the Algonquian name of the little greyish bird known by aboriginal peoples as a trickster).
Then, of course, there is the controversy that the whiskey jack is not found in the most populous part of Canada – southern Ontario. The bird’s southern range, believe it or not, ends somewhere in the northern part of Haliburton County.
I was thinking about all this the other day while alternately watching the Trumpeter’s inauguration on TV and the chickadees at the feeders outside the kitchen window. (The chickadees were much more interesting!)
Trump delivered a scornful, dystopian speech and boasted how he will fix, immediately, all the screw-ups created by the four ex-presidents seated in the audience behind him.
Meanwhile, the chickadees flitted and twittered, broadcasting a message that despite cool temperatures and a bit of grey sky, the world overall is a pretty great place.
If I was voting for a national bird, or an American president, my choice would be the chickadee. It is a humble little creature that always appears positive and hopeful about its surroundings. Also, although its brain is tiny, it is fully functional.
The Cherokee associated the chickadee with truth and knowledge, traits noticeably missing in the new American president, and an increasing number of other politicians.
At any rate, I am not voting for a national bird. We have more than 400 species of birds in Canada. Each has its own qualities and instead of singling out one as special we should celebrate them all.