Barry Kent MacKayArt by Barry Kent MacKay
Art and Photo Presentation

In this section are copies of original works of art. All of them are dedicated to helping us live according to unconditional love and compassion, which is the foundation of our peaceful means of bringing true and lasting peace to all of God's creatures, whether they are human beings or other animals.

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

gray jay
(Artwork - 118)
Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

The Gray Jay was, when I was a child prior to 1957, called the Canada Jay, although then and now perhaps a more popular name for it was the “whisky jack”, which was derived from the Cree name, Wisakedjak, a mythical figure of various forms, including a crane or other bird, and often depicted as a joker or trickster. I’ve also heard it called “meat bird” and “camp robber” and “venison hawk” and the “official” name is often spelled Grey Jay. It is well known for its lack of fear of humans. Indeed, they associate humans with the availability of food and will fly into campsites in the northern forests and help itself to a slice of bacon, a fish fillet, a biscuit or any other unguarded food, although most people are happy to share since these are attractive birds who provide welcome company for an otherwise lonely hunter, trapper, camper or hiker. They will sometimes alight on an open hand if food is offered.

The jays nest at this time of year, when there is still lots of snow, and are also famous, as are other species of jay, for storing food and remembering where they put it. Unfortunately, now that global warming means shorter winters and longer, hotter summers there is more food spoilage and it appears that nesting success is declining, at least along the southern limits of the Gray Jay’s range.

The female incubates the eggs while the male feeds her, and because of the cold she may rarely leave the eggs or hatchlings. The species is omnivorous, taking a wide range of foods that can include the odd small vertebrate animal, such as a small bird or salamander.

Last year Canadian Geographic opened what many of us thought was a contest to select a “national bird” for Canada. My own choice was the Red-breasted Nuthatch, which was not even in the running. Most people chose the Common Loon. However, the choice had already been made, and it was the Gray Jay. This is, after all, a species found in boreal forests right across Canada, winter and summer (loons migrate and leave most of Canada in the winter); is found only in Canada and the U.S. (loons are found around the northern hemisphere); and are “friendly” (it’s usually hard to get close to a loon) and, as I’ll explain, were once called Canada Jay and may be again someday. However, Gray Jays are not found where most people in Canada live or vacation, and are far less well known than loons.

There are as many as nine subspecies of Gray Jay recognized, but the main thing to remember is that they easily fit into one of two groups: one that found across most of Canada, that has an even gray-coloured back, and one that is found in the western mountains, mostly of the U.S., and is more brown on the back, with distinctive light coloured central shaft-streaks to the feathers of the upper back. These birds used to be known as the “Oregon Jay”.

All of this is far too technical to get into here, but the leading authority on Gray Jays, Dan Stickland, tells me there may be a case to be made for separating the two main groups of Gray Jays into two distinct species. the most widely distributed one would be called the Canada Jay, the other the Oregon Jay.

I’ve also had the pleasure of close encounters with the “Oregon Jay” in northern California, at the southwestern tip of their range (although some Gray Jays reach as far south as central Arizona). I think part of the appeal of these birds drives from the fact that they have a narrow black or blackish ring around the eye with imparts an innocent-looking big-eyed look. They have rather short, very vaguely upturned beaks and, as with most members of the Corvid family – jays, crows, magpies, pies, rooks etc. – they have stiff feathers over the nostrils. In winter Gray Jays can fluff out their feathers to the point where they are very round looking, as their body feathers are very long and very soft.

Of course the bird is not officially recognized as our national bird – we still don’t have one – but I suspect that if the name “Canada Jay” were restored, more people would support the Canadian Geographic choice.

Dan Strickland worked to tease out the very complicated history of this species’ English name, and made it into a powerpoint presentation he kindly shared with me. We both agreed that the story was so complex it would be difficult to turn into an article, but the great news is that he is doing so, to be published in Ontario Birds, the journal of the Ontario Field Ornithologists for whom I do the cover illustrations. And so this painting was done for the issue that will feature Dan’s article. And I did it just a few days after visiting Gray Jays, with biologist David Lavigne, in Algonquin Park, where we had close encounters with many Gray Jays. But as usual, I did not try to do a photographic type of illustration, presenting the bird in a more subjectively impressionistic background that featured, I hope, the tones and colours and lighting of the forest in February.

The painting is done in acrylics on compressed hardboard and is 12 by 9 inches, with the bird approximately life size.

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Barry describes himself as a Canadian artist/writer/naturalist.
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