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Can eBird Help Canada Choose Better Provincial Birds?

Admittedly, Canada has some pretty awesome provincial birds, like Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, and Common Loon. But bear with us—eBird uncovered some thought-provoking alternatives.

a montage of two white-and-black birds side by side, a ptarmigan and a Snow Goose.
The gorgeous Rock Ptarmigan (left) represents the Canadian territory of Nunavut, but eBird data finds that 92% of all Snow Geese in the world breed here, suggesting that they might be a better choice. Photos from Macaulay Library: Rock Ptarmigan by Blair Dudeck, Snow Goose by Brad Imhoff.

From the Spring 2023 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

This is Part 5 of our reevaluation of state and provincial birds, a light-hearted project using eBird analyses. On the whole, the current slate of official birds includes some fine choices—some of them just seem a bit random. It got us wondering which birds have the deepest connection to their state or province, in a biogeographical sense—so we used eBird Status and Trends models to do just that. See more details about our process in Part 1.

The movements to declare official birds in Canada occurred much later than in the U.S.A., with most provinces naming their official birds in the 1970s and 1980s. When the Canadians did it, there was no overlap; each province honored a different bird. And we have to admit they chose some pretty great birds, on the whole, including Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Gyrfalcon, and Common Loon.

More State Bird Suggestions

Nevertheless, the eBird data suggested some different choices, most of which would likely not fly if it came down to a popular vote, says Stu Mackenzie, an eBird reviewer in Ontario and ornithologist at Birds Canada. For instance, eBird’s suggestion for Quebec’s new bird is the Philadelphia Vireo. “No one in Canada wants a bird stupidly named after a U.S. city as their bird,” he says. (On the other hand, he adds that a name change to “Quebec Vireo” for the species might be in order.)

Mackenzie says other name changes would be needed if the eBird provincial birds were to be considered, such as switching Townsend’s Solitaire to “Yukon Solitaire.” And he says Indigenous names, cultures, and traditions would need to be part of the discussion. But “at the end of the day, it’s a fun thing to do,” Mackenzie says of the eBird provincial birds thought experiment.

“You’re unlikely to take the loon away from Ontario,” he says, but “the exercise creates an interesting discussion and brings forward some interesting ecology for different parts of the hemisphere that people [otherwise] wouldn’t think of. … Only a small group of folks know of the importance of the Hudson Bay lowlands to species like Yellow Rail.” 

In another controversial choice, eBird data suggests that Manitoba residents ditch the thoroughly awesome Great Gray Owl for the secretive and poorly studied Connecticut Warbler. Manitoba provides breeding territory for a full third of the Connecticut Warbler population, thanks to its proliferation of insect-rich boreal bogs and meadows. Currently no warblers are honored as an official bird across the U.S. and Canada. Given how beloved warblers are by birders, perhaps it is fitting that eBird data suggests 15 different warbler species as new state or provincial birds. 

Here’s the full lineup of provinces and territories, with eBird’s suggestions:

Alberta honors the Great Horned Owl, a fine species but one that ranges over most of the Western Hemisphere. By contrast, the lovely Franklin’s Gull has 32.3% of its global population breeding in Alberta, the highest of any province. Photo by Matt Misewicz/Macaulay Library.
Little bird with a bright orange throat, reddish-brown head, reddish body with white right below throat, and a long dark bill, flying.
In a battle of bright colors, British Columbia’s current bird, the deep-blue Steller’s Jay, is up against eBird’s suggestion, the brilliant Rufous Hummingbird. Steller’s Jays breed over much of western North America, while fully 62% of all Rufous Hummingbirds breed in B.C. Photo by Sharif Uddin/Macaulay Library.
Even we called Manitoba’s current bird, Great Gray Owl, “thoroughly awesome.” Nonetheless Manitoba hosts a full third of the global breeding population of Connecticut Warbler, a sought-after species with a mystique all its own. Photo by Tony Dvorak/Macaulay Library.
New Brunswick currently has the Black-capped Chickadee (along with Massachusetts and Maine). eBird politely asks, what about the most spectacularly fiery of all warblers? The Blackburnian Warbler reaches its second- highest population density during breeding season in New Brunswick. Photo by Ethan Denton/Macaulay Library.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s choice of Atlantic Puffin is a crowd favorite, but only a small proportion of the global population lives here. eBird suggests the enigmatic Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, which breeds here at higher density than anywhere else, amounting to 21.3% of the global population. Photo by Bryan Calk/Macaulay Library.
Northwest Territories’ current selection is Gyrfalcon, a sleek and powerful arctic raptor that many birders dream about. On the other hand, eBird points out that White-winged Scoter has a stronger connection, with 38% of the global population breeding in the Northwest Territories. Photo by Dave Bourne/Macaulay Library.
Nova Scotia claims the Osprey, a bird that lives on every continent except Antarctica. eBird data notes that Great Black-backed Gull, with 5.6% of the global population found year-round here, is worth consideration. Photo by Zak Pohlen/Macaulay Library.
Snowy Nunavut named a great arctic bird with the Rock Ptarmigan—but eBird data points out that an astounding 92% of all Snow Geese in the world breed here. Photo by Bob MacDonnell/Macaulay Library.
With approximately 250,000 lakes, Ontario contains one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, and plenty of Common Loons to show for it. But eBird data points up an even stronger claim: some 73% of the global Yellow Rail population breeds here. Photo by Blair Dudeck/Macaulay LIbrary.
Dark gray/brown duck with yellow bill, blue feather under its wing, and yellow legs, stands on wet ground.
If Prince Edward Island were to reconsider its provincial bird (Blue Jay), might we suggest the American Black Duck? This subtly beautiful duck occurs year-round in P.E.I. and reaches its highest wintering population here. Photo by Daniel Jauvin/Macaulay Library.
Quebec’s provincial bird, the Snowy Owl, is possibly the most popular owl in the world. How can the diminutive and relatively mild-mannered Philadelphia Vireo compete with that? Fully 67.5% of the species’ global population breeds in Quebec. Photo by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library.
Saskatchewan’s immense prairies are great habitat for Sharp-tailed Grouse, its current provincial bird. But those same prairies support vast numbers of waterfowl, including 45.6% of the global breeding population of Canvasback. Photo by Bob MacDonnell/Macaulay Library.
The Yukon currently honors the clever, assertive (and cosmopolitan) Common Raven. eBird data suggests the avian equivalent of a deep cut: the Townsend’s Solitaire. Looking a bit like a flycatcher and sounding like a long-winded robin, this hardy thrush has 23.3% of its global population breeding in the Yukon—the highest percentage of any province. Photo by Amanda Guercio/Macaulay Library.

Matt Smith is an applications programmer for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Smith conceptualized this story while playing with eBird data as a hobby. Marc Devokaitis is the associate editor of Living Bird magazine.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library