Good-bye Gray Jay

Gray Jay-1One aspect of nature I appreciate is its constancy. No matter who gets elected, a rose is still a rose. Whether I’m happy or sad, a moose remains a moose. The world can fall apart, but a jay is still a jay. Or not.

That’s right. This year, the American Ornithological Society (AOS, formerly the AOU) has voted to rename the Gray Jay. From now on (or should I say “once again”?), this personable gray-and-white bird will be known as a Canada Jay.

Normally, names don’t get changed unless there’s a compelling biological reason—splitting or lumping species, for example. The AOS naming committee prefers not to mess with familiar common names (thank you very much). However, this time it wasn’t biology that prompted the change, it was a combination of history and politics. And to be fair, it does make sense.

Gray (er, Canada) Jays carry the scientific name Perisoreus Canadensis, so you can see where the idea came from. Moreover, they were called Canada Jays from as far back as 1831 until 1957.  So what happened?

Gray Jay_StateForestSP-CO_LAH_6462Back in 1947–48, it was customary to designate subspecies by an extra common name, based on where that subspecies was found. P. Canadensis had nine recognized subspecies, including the Alberta Jay, Oregon Jay, and Alaska Jay. Now put the names together: Alberta Canada Jay, Oregon Canada Jay, Alaska Canada Jay. Awkward, isn’t it, especially since Oregon and Alaska aren’t even part of Canada. In an attempt to avoid this kind of confusion, the AOU changed the common name to Gray Jay.

These days, subspecies only get a Latin addendum, so combining incompatible geographical names is no longer an issue. Many similar names reverted to their original names, but for some reason, P. Canadensis wasn’t among them. The species was listed on the 1957 AOU checklist as Gray Jay, and it has been Gray ever since. Until now.

Seven energetic ornithologists, including Dan Strickland, who has studied these birds for over fifty years, and Ryan Norris, another jay expert, went to bat for the original name. Their well-researched arguments have prevailed. (You can read their extensive explanation starting on page five of their proposal to the AOS.)

Gray Jay_StateForestSP-CO_LAH_6614Part of their motivation was the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s 2015–2016 campaign for the naming of a Canadian national bird. The Gray Jay only came in third in the popular vote, but the Society proclaimed it the winner anyway. The Canadian government didn’t take the hint. Could it be because  “gray” is the American spelling, as opposed to “grey”? Or perhaps they were waiting for the name to be restored. (It will be interesting to see what happens next.)

Then there’s the matter of simply putting things to rights. Typically, where there are several names, a species’ oldest name takes priority. And, as Norris points out in their proposal, when the name was changed to Gray Jay, “Basically, the AOU didn’t follow their own rule.”

Finally, there’s a historical precedent—this isn’t the first time a bird’s name has been changed back to an earlier version. In fact, that name change involved another jay.

Mexican Jay_SantaRitaLodge-MaderaCynAZ_20100511_LAH_1661sSince 1949, Aphelocoma wollweberi was commonly listed as the Mexican Jay. Then, in 1983, and for no reason other than the head of the AOU naming committee preferred it that way, the name was changed to Gray-breasted Jay. When J.L. Brown, an ornithologist who had been studying the jays, vigorously complained, the name was changed back to Mexican Jay in 1995.

So now we have the Mexican Jay to the south and the Canada Jay to the north. I guess I’d better go update my field guides.


The answer to last week’s bird quiz is American Robin (juvenile).

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