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For the Birds: Getting names right is no small detail, by Chris Bosak

Name game

CHRIS BOSAK

A gray jay — make that Canada jay — perches in a tree in Pittsburg in late 2018.

Well, I did it again. Apparently I’ve been using the wrong name for a bird for the past year or so.

Recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about the common gallinule that had been seen near the Dillant-Hopkins Airport. Many people, myself included, initially referred to the bird as a common moorhen, the name previously used for the bird. In 2011, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to common gallinule after splitting the species from a similar bird in Europe and Asia.

I’m not as far behind on this latest name change. In May 2018, just about a year ago, the union changed the name of the gray jay to the Canada jay. The handsome, bold bird of the north was historically called the Canada jay anyway, so it was really a change back to an old name.

I wrote a column back in November about a trip to Pittsburg, during which Savanna and I encountered several gray jays, as I referred to them. By that time, the name had already been changed to Canada jay, so I led my readers astray. My apologies.

It doesn’t change the fact that the jays were the highlight of the trip. Wildlife sightings were scarce, but the jays were near constant companions. They ate out of our hands, were the only visitors to the bird feeder I hung at our cabin and greeted us on many of our hikes.

During breakfast one morning in the North Country, we started a conversation with a group of local women at a diner. One of the ladies said she lived right across the street. I noticed there were bird feeders in her yard, so I asked what birds visited. She said some of the usual suspects with a few northern birds, such as pine grosbeak, thrown in.

They asked us what birds we had seen on our trip so far. I had mentioned gray jay a few times and one of the ladies finally asked: “Gray jay? That’s the same as Canada jay, right?” I said yes, as I knew many people referred to the bird as Canada jay. Just like many people call it whiskey jack.

I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks ago when I saw a Facebook posting from a friend who had traveled to the Adirondacks and posted a photo of the bird in question. It was labeled Canada jay. I wondered if I was missing something. Was I using the wrong name for a bird again?

Yup.

I did an Internet search and came up with a great article on audubon.org written by Katie Valentine. The title of the story was “The Gray Jay Will Officially Be Called the Canada Jay Again.”

The article states that from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, the bird was called the Canada jay. In 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union listed the bird as gray jay in its Checklist of North and Middle American Birds. Although some people never stopped calling it the Canada jay, it was officially gray jay until the middle of last year, when it was changed back to Canada jay. The complete story is still available at audubon.org and includes an interesting history of the name and the people behind getting the name returned to Canada jay.

Bird names change fairly often and it’s interesting to note what some birds were previously called. I’m going to look through a few old field guides I have and write a column in the near future about some of the name changes I come across.

Every bird column I write is fun, but this one will be particularly amusing, I’m sure.

For the Birds runs Mondays in The Sentinel. Chris Bosak may be reached at chrisbosak26@gmail.com or through his website www.birdsofnewengland.com.

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