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Coolest Bird of the Week: The Gray jay – National Bird of Canada

The Gray jay was previously known as the Canada Jay. Illustration from P.Taverner's 1922 edition of Birds of Eastern Canada

Post #50 of 100 days of Blogging

10 Paragraphs about the Gray Jay – our new National Bird

So by now you know that the hardy Gray jay is the new (though still unofficial) National Bird of Canada. After much essay writing, voting, debate and consultation with the public, professional ornithologists, conservationists and representatives of cultural and indigenous groups, Canadian Geographic Magazine announced the winning contest choice last week.

Yet, it seems that the debate over the choice of the clever corvid as our National bird isn’t quite over yet. Never mind that it was chosen because it isn’t already an official provincial or territorial bird, has cultural ties to Indigenous people, and is a year-round resident of the boreal forest that will nest at temperature extremes of -30 C (Minus 30!) Some people just aren’t happy!

As expected, the announcement caused immediate chatter within the local birding community. On the BPQ Facebook page, although most comments below the posted article announcing the winner were positive, some even elated, others seemed disappointed. In the on-line BPQ Songsparrow discussion group, commentary was positive too, but it seems just having a National bird isn’t enough for the hard- core bird enthusiasts. Some feel strongly that it now needs to have its name reverted from “Gray” back to the original “Canada” Jay!

gray_jay_on_nestNest building can start in early February and clutches initiated as early as Feb 22 at temperatures as low as -30 C.. (Image: Wikipedia)

As to the reaction from members of the public not highly invested in things bird, the reactions were also lively. On a local English speaking radio station, I heard the afternoon drive-home show host bemoaning the choice of a “boring gray bird,” suggesting that the Canada Goose or Loon and, yes, even a TOUCAN would be a better choice. I can only assume (hope?) he was kidding about the Toucan, but seriously? Mr. Radio Host, you do know the Toucan is not a Canadian bird right? No, not even if it’s colorful and you did see it in a zoo!

The last is but one of the funny things I’ve heard this week, but leads me to the point. Canadians collectively know too little about our bird life or why it is important, and so the strong reactions are a really a good thing. For many, the new National Bird will be an introduction to a bird they know nothing about, and that makes it a perfect choice.

The Gray jay can survives in the hostile climate by scatter-hoarding food items fastened in trees under bark scales and lichens (Image:wikipedia)The Gray jay can survive in a hostile winter climate by scatter-hoarding food items fastened in trees under bark scales and lichens (Image: Wikipedia)

The very fact that it is unfamiliar makes it novel and interesting. That’s important because I’m willing to bet most people wouldn’t read much further if they saw an article announcing that the Common Loon or the Canada Goose was just declared the National Bird. Especially, since I have a feeling most Canadians think one of those already is Canada’s official bird! Perhaps the Gray Jay is not in our collective hearts quite yet, but it will be. Yes, the loon is on the “loonie” and the Canada Goose is “everywhere.” But enough already!

As Dr David Bird pointed out in his essay promoting the Gray Canada Jay, 99% of Canadians don’t know the difference between a Raven and a Crow. I say they can learn and now the Gray Jay provides the perfect opportunity to do so!

Making the Gray Canada Jay the National bird, and by extension also the official boreal forest PR bird, will, as Dr. Bird also pointed out in his essay, draw attention to the boreal habitat and other conservation issues.

Nestlings are being fed when lakes are still frozen and the ground still snow-covered and fledging occurs before 80% of migratory birds have returned. (Image:Wikipedia)Nestlings are fed while lakes are still frozen, the ground snow-covered. Fledging occurs before 80% of migratory birds have returned. (Image: Wikipedia)

Just like when you click on a Google search link and an hour later realize you’ve ended up reading about something you weren’t even searching for in the first place! The Gray Canada Jay, with all of its wonderful connections to things uniquely Canadian, provides a rich opportunity for all Canadians to learn more about our country, its heritage and hopefully inspire us to travel and explore more of it.

So to that radio host and anyone else still asking what’s so special about a “boring gray” bird, I say this. If I may borrow a few words from a classic Shirley Temple movie line: Can YOU lay an egg – at minus 30 degrees?

Coolest Bird of the Week: 10 Things about the Bearded Vulture

The Bearded Vulture is also known as the Lammergeier or Bartgeir

Day 32 of 100 Days of Blogging

In keeping with this week-end’s Halloween theme, today’s contender for Coolest Bird of the Week is the bone crunching Bearded Vulture!

Coolest Bird of the Week #5

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

#1. The Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a bird of prey and the only bird to specialize in eating bones. Its diet consists of 85–90% bone marrow. Like vultures in general, it performs an important job, cleaning up the ecosystem of rotting carcasses and thereby helping to reduce diseases for other predators. 

#2. As vultures go, this one is quite attractive. Most vultures don’t have feathers on their heads so that they can stick them into carcasses but avoid all the bacteria that comes with that. The Bearded Vulture, on the other hand, has beautiful reddish yellow or white plumage on the head; a benefit of specializing in bones and not having to stick your head inside any messy cavities! The reddish colour on the feathers actually comes from rubbing themselves in dirt that contains ferric oxides.

#3. The Bearded Vulture is found in the high, rugged mountains of southern Europe, Africa and Asia. This bird requires an enormous territory, about 200-400 km2, in which to breed and forage and so it is greatly affected by any habitat loss.

#4. Two centuries ago this vulture was commonly seen in the mountains across southern Europe from Western Spain to the Balkans. Today the Bearded Vulture is the rarest Vulture in Europe. The total combined population of Europe, Turkey and Russia is estimated to be from 600 to 1000 breeding pairs.

#5. The Bearded Vulture swallows bones as large 25cm (10 in.) long and 3.5 cm (1¼ in) wide. It can even carry very large bones almost equal to its own weight. In order to be able to deal with these really big delicacies, it uses its talons to carry them high into the air, then drops them from a height of 50–150 m (160–490 ft) above ground onto areas of flat rock, called ossuaries. If the bones don’t shatter on the first try, birds have been observed performing this task over and over until the shards are in edible sized pieces. This isn’t as easy as it sounds though! Young birds take 7 years to perfect this skill.

#6. The bone marrow diet of the Bearded Vulture means that it doesn’t have to compete with other animals for the carcass, as is the case with meat eaters. The skeleton dehydrates, which protects it from bacterial degradation, and can be consumed months after a kill. The bird can return time after time to the source without having to drag away and stash its food either. Its powerful stomach acids will breakdown the bones in about 24 hours. It will also eat a small quantity of live prey and is reported to use its drop-and-smash technique on turtles.

#7. Habitat loss is only one of the causes of population decreases in this species. Another is the adverse effects of the veterinary drug diclofenac, which has affected Vulture populations in general. On the Indian sub-continent the drug’s use in veterinary medicine is banned, but in Europe this is not yet the case.

#8. Bearded Vultures only breed in alternate years since chicks require care for up to 2 years. They breed in winter when carcasses are more readily available due to the harsh mountainous climate it inhabits. Chicks hatch in February.

#9. The Bearded Vulture, like other Old World Vultures, depends on sight to find its food. This is in contrast to many New World vultures that have a highly developed sense of smell.

#10. Historically, the Bearded Vulture was feared and (wrongly) blamed for attacking domestic animals, especially lambs, and even carrying off young children. As a result, they were hunted to extirpation in the Alps, where the last live specimen was shot in 1913. However, thanks to a recent re-introduction program, about 20 pairs now breed there.


Coolest Bird of the Week: 10 Things about the Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon (Duck Hawk) in P.Taverner's 1921 edition of Birds of Eastern Canada
The Peregrine Falcon is also known as the Duck Hawk in North America, from P.Taverner's 1921 edition of Birds of Eastern Canada

Day 26 of 100 days of Blogging

The Peregrine Falcon is today’s choice for the Coolest Bird of Week. It is possesses a lightning-like dive speed that strikes fear into the hearts of pigeons everywhere, has a history of use in falconry dating back some 3000 years, and it is also much easier to find than our previously featured “coolest” birds! However, there’s an even more compelling reason for it to be highlighted here; the Peregrine also happens to have a unique history in the city of Montreal itself. Some of the following facts are from A Bird in the Bush, the official history book of the PQSPB. 

Coolest Bird of the Week

10 Things about the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

#1. The Sun Life Building in Montreal is cited as the location for the first ever authenticated record of Peregrine Falcons using a 
manmade urban structure for nesting. In 1936 a pair of Peregrines was first observed circling around the building. Two years later eggs were discovered scattered on the ledge of the 20th floor. 

#2. Eggs laid in 1938 and 1939 did not hatch and most rolled into the rain gutters. Nevertheless, the birds were observed in the vicinity throughout the year. In 1940 nest boxes were provided for the Sun Life birds in hopes of aiding successful hatching; the attempts were rewarded with the fledging of two young birds. 

#3. The Sun Life Building remained an active Peregrine eyrie until 1952. The presence of the falcons was not without its share of controversy. Headlines were made in newspapers across Canada and the US when workers refused to do maintenance work on the buildings, fearing attacks by the angry birds defending their territory. All manner of calls to kill the birds as well as advice on how to co-exist with them were freely offered to the building’s owners . Ultimately, the work was delayed until the nesting season was over!

#4. From the time of the first successful nesting in 1940 until 1952, 50 eggs were laid. Of these, 26 hatched and 4 hatchlings died before fledging. In the later years a number of unsuccessful nesting attempts were observed. In 1949 the female was observed eating her eggs.

#5. The birds disappeared from Montreal and the Sun Life building in 1953, and this is generally attributed to the DDT pesticide use that affected this specie’s population declines worldwide. Fortunately, conservation measures and legislation banning organochlorine pesticides in the 1970’s allowed for population comebacks. 

#6. The Peregrine returned to Montreal in 1983 and today it is commonly found to nest in numerous locations in the area. 
Overall, the Peregrine is the most widespread raptor in the world. It can be found from the Arctic tundra to the tropics. It is observed along mountain ranges, river valleys, coastlines, and increasingly in cities. 

#7. The Peregrine eats almost exclusively medium-sized birds, but will occasionally hunt small mammals, small reptiles, or even insects.
The male and female have similar markings and plumage, but the female is about 30 % larger.

#8. It is considered to be the fastest animal, not just bird, in the world. Although estimates vary, diving speeds of more than 300 KM/h have been cited.  

#9. The peregrine falcon has a long history with Falconry dating back over 3000 years. It continues to be used widely by falconers; valued for applications such as bird population reduction programs around airports. Since there are now wide-spread captive breeding programs, removing falcons from the wild has become largely unnecessary.  

#10. Play the video to see the Peregrine in action! 

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