Say goodbye to Gray Jay. The common resident of northern forests, Perisoreus canadensis, is officially known, once again, as Canada Jay. The North and Middle America Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society decided this spring to restore the name that had been used for the bird from at least the 1830s through 1957.
Gray Jay had been adopted as the official name of the species in 1957, with the publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s fifth checklist. But a group of seven ornithologists argued in a recent proposal to have the name changed back to Canada Jay. Part of the reason, they said, is that Canada’s government might adopt the species as the country’s national bird, and it would be more likely to do so if it were named Canada Jay.
Dan Strickland, the lead author of the proposal, served as Chief Park Naturalist in Ontaior’s Algonquin Provincial Park from 1970 to 2000. He has been studying the jays since 1967, and his work is now one of the world’s longest-running investigations of a population of color-banded birds. Strickland also wrote “How the Canada Jay lost its name and why it matters,” (PDF) which was published in Ontario Birds in 2017.
The proposal to restore “Canada Jay” as the common name of P. canadensis was based on three main criteria:
- 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; in 1954, common names were dropped for bird subspecies, and the name “Gray Jay” was adopted for the species, despite guidelines calling for the use of English names of nominate subspecies for polytypic species.
- Failure to rescind the substitution of “Gray Jay” for “Canada Jay” ended up violating an AOU nomenclatural principle, namely to retain the traditional names whenever possible.
- A precedent was set for another jay species in North America, when the Mexican Jay was officially redesignated as the “Gray-breasted Jay” in 1983, but then its original common name was restored to the Mexican Jay in 1998. In addition to its historical precedence, the name “Canada Jay” reflects the scientific name of the species and its main area of distribution.
The Strickland proposal also acknowledges the jay’s potential to become Canada’s national bird:
“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’.”
The AOS guidelines for common names favor long-term stability and widespread usage, since these names are often used to communicate about birds among non-scientists. However, when a past decision was made with little justification (as in the case of the Canada Jay), it can be reversed.
Proposals must receive a 2/3 positive vote by committee members to pass. The Strickland proposal was considered by the committee, and passed 9-1 to restore the common name to Canada Jay. The 59th supplement to the Checklist, with the Gray Jay to Canada Jay name change, will be published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances in July 2018. Votes and comments on the proposed change will be posted on the proposals web page.
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