For the Birds: Oh yeah, it’s not a gray jay anymore

Photo by Chris Bosak A Canada jay perches in a tree in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.

While on my unsuccessful moose search in northern Maine recently, I came across a bird found only in points north of middle New England. 

I knew what it was and launched the field guide app on my phone to gather a little information on the species.

To my surprise, nothing showed up when I searched for the bird.

“How could that be?“ I asked myself. “I know what bird it is and I know what it’s called. Why would it not show up on a search in a field guide to North American birds?”

Then it hit me. I was searching the wrong name. The gray jay is no longer called the gray jay. It is back to being the Canada jay. It had formerly been known as the Canada jay, got switched to gray Jay, and in 2018, got changed back to Canada jay. I had known this before, and even mentioned it in a previous bird column, but had totally forgotten while I was in the field at that moment.

I adjusted my search to Canada jay, and lo and behold, up came the bird in question. I reminded myself of some facts and figures about this interesting and often tame northern bird and continued my fruitless search for moose.

On a somewhat related side story, while I traveled hours upon hours to the northern boundaries of Maine to look for a moose and came up empty, about 10 days later a young bull moose was spotted in a busy parking lot in heavily populated southern Connecticut about an hour outside of New York City. Go figure.

Anyway, I had a similar experience a few years ago of not being able to find a bird on my field guide app because I was entering the wrong name. I was in Florida visiting my brother, and we took a walk at a local park. A small pond there had a common moorhen swimming around. I looked up common moorhen to get some information on the bird and could not find anything. I did a quick internet search and discovered that the common moorhen, in America anyway, is now the common gallinule. The change took place back in 2011 and somehow I missed the memo.

The American Ornithological Society determines the names of bird species and on occasion will change a few. Sometimes the change goes largely unnoticed, and it takes a while to catch on with the general public.

There are likely many more bird name changes coming in the next few years as the birding community grapples with birds named after people who have questionable pasts. Many birds named after people will soon likely get more descriptive names, such as McCown’s longspur renamed to thick-billed longspur – a change that has already taken place. Many more will follow. 

Even the venerable Audubon Society itself is now grappling with whether to change its name. That seems to be only a matter of time as well.

Printed field guides will be left with the old names until new editions can be made. Online field guides have the advantage of being able to update the names in real time. 

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

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