THE ROYAL CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, having canvassed the country for two years, had finally narrowed the search [for Canada’s national bird] to Perisoreus canadensis, a robin-sized cousin of the raven and crow native to every province and territory and nowhere else on the planet. Unlike most of our birds, it stays up north year-round, nesting in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Hardy, smart, loyal and friendly – what could be more Canadian?
The commonest complaint about RCGS’s choice of P. canadensis is that it’s unfamiliar. Not to me it isn’t, nor to most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. We grew up with this bird. Without it our winter woods would seem bereft. Many’s the mugup cheered by their unobtrusive presence and droll antics.
Some of my fondest woodland memories feature this bird. Not the times we teenagers used them for .22 rifle practice; that was shameful. Our excuse was that they ate our unfrozen rabbits. But that was because we, living two or three kilometres away and attending school all week, tended our sets too seldom.
In truth the thieves more than made up for their petty pilfering. Saturday after Saturday they graced our forest perambulations. The moment they heard chopping or talking, they’d come. You’d hear a querulous call or two, then glimpse one, two, three gliding soundlessly from branch to branch, sometimes pitching so near they seemed tame. As the alder fire crackled and your teakettle steamed, they’d hop closer still, eager for tossed bread crumbs.
That was then. Years later, timber-cruising up Bonavista way to help finance another year of forestry school, our survey team rejoiced to see the same mealtime ritual. One evening my pancakes wouldn’t rise – too little baking powder I suppose. Disgusted, I flung them away.
Instantly a grey form swooped down, grasped one in its small talons and prepared to loft it to some hidey hole.
It couldn’t. Like an overladen bushplane, it just couldn’t get fully airborne. The best it could manage before crash-landing was a metre or so. We near split our sides laughing. Yet I doubt the bird gave up when we left. What she couldn’t eat she likely stashed, crumb by crumb, in the surrounding trees.