Wild About Bird Names

In 2017, after a close-fought vote by more than 50,000 Canadians, the Royal Geographic Society of Canada declared the gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) as our national bird. Although it has not received official government sanction, the gray jay, a subtly-coloured, yet opinionated and sassy bird, might be the perfect representative for the country—it’s not flashy, but it stands up for itself and has a strong sense of humour. 

Like many other birds, gray jays have a plethora of names including Canada jay, whiskeyjack, and camp robber. In fact, the gray jay’s common name was officially reverted to Canada jay not long after the vote to anoint it as our national bird. 

A Canada jay perches on a small branch. It is a medium-sized bird with a dark gray head and lighter grey throat and stomach.
Canada Jay photo by Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s in a name? National pride aside, why does it matter which name is the official one? The primary reason is to prevent confusion. Common names for plants and animals can vary enormously, even in a local context. Having an official name can ensure that we’re all talking about the same species.

This was certainly part of the thinking of Carl Linneaus (b. 1707), who created the binomial system of taxonomy that we still use today. This system creates a unique, two part Latin name for every species, an elegant approach that eliminates the muddle of common names. From a scientific perspective, binomial names are a useful organizational tool. From a linguistic and cultural perspective, it can be argued that distilling plant and animal names down to a single, clinical taxonomic name removes our connection to the world around us. 

If we return to the many common names of the Canada jay, what do they tell us? Gray jay describes the bird’s physical description, Canada jay describes where it lives, and camp robber describes its saucy behaviour of stealing food and other items from people’s campsites. And the name whiskeyjack? It derives its origin from the Cree name wîskicâk, a rare example of an Indigenous North American name that was adopted in common parlance. Standardized names have their place, but it’s undeniable that something is lost when we leave the diversity of common names behind. 

A Canada jay peeks through lichen-covered branches. Only its head is visible behind a swath of grey-green lichen.
Canada Jay photo by Caleb Putnam, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other side of standardized naming is that not all variations in names are lost; some are taken. Whether we call it a Canada jay or Perisoreus canadensis, these names are colonial settler names, imposed on and erasing the Indigenous names that have existed for millenia. Making matters worse, dozens of birds are named in honour of people who participated in slavery and genocide. 

Efforts are underway to move away from birds that are named for individuals. Even names without a violent colonial history tell us little about the species in question. Take the Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), a cousin to our Canada Jay. Described by and named after 18th century naturalist Georg Steller, whether it’s in Latin or English, its name tells us nothing of this bird’s beautiful midnight and cobalt blue plumage, or its love for mountainous conifer forests. Nor does it tell us anything about this bird’s relationship to the land and its connection to the local Indigenous peoples. As names go, it’s a dead end. 

A Steller's jay perches on a branch. It is a medium-sized bird with an upright crest on its head. It's head and shoulders are a dark blackish midnight blue, while it's wings and belly are a bright cobalt blue.
Steller’s Jay, photo by VJAnderson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Making this change won’t be easy. More than 80 bird species would need to be renamed and consideration and consultation for the new names is likely to take time. What should the new names look like? Suggestions include formalizing Indigenous names or translations, using a descriptive Indigenous word, or using an Indigenous place name. 

We love to name things and I do believe that knowing the name of a species helps us appreciate it. Whether we call a bird a Canada jay, Perisoreus canadensis, or wîskicâk, the names we use can create a connection to the species around us.