• Experts at the national bird debate

    Host George Kourounis grills the expert panel at the Great Canadian National Bird Debate on Sept. 19. Left to right: George Elliott Clarke, Mark Graham, David Bird, Alex MacDonald and Steven Price. (Photo: Tamam Ahmed Jama)

Is the cry of the loon a hauntingly beautiful lament or the stuff of children's nightmares? Is the Canada goose a messy, ill-tempered brute or a unifying symbol that is also surprisingly delicious?

These were just some of the (only semi-serious) questions up for discussion at the Great Canadian National Bird Debate, a Can Geo Talks event hosted by the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa Sept. 19. The debate, conducted by a panel of five experts and hosted by George Kourounis, was the second phase of Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project. With the help of Bird Studies Canada, National Conservation Partner on the undertaking, Can Geo aims to designate an official national bird for Canada by 2017. Nearly 50,000 Canadians voted in the initial poll, with 13,000 submitting English and French comments, essays and even poems. The top five birds (as voted by Canadians) were on trial at the debate, which was held in the sold-out Barrick Salon at the museum, with Canadians in other cities, provinces and territories watching live online.

Defending the candidates were George Elliott Clarke, Canada's Poet Laureate (chickadee), Mark S. Graham, Vice-President of Research and Collections for the Canadian Museum of Nature (Canada goose), David Bird, Professor Emeritus of Wildlife Biology at McGill University (gray jay), Alex MacDonald, Senior Conservation Manager, Nature Canada (snowy owl) and Steven Price, President of Bird Studies Canada (common loon). Shirley Ida Williams, Professor Emeritus of Indigenous Studies at Trent University, originally slated for the panel, was unable to attend.

Each panellist was prepared to champion their chosen bird and disparage all others, and the debate raged on through four timed rounds with a mix of academic, insightful, emotional and hilariously irreverent arguments for and against all birds involved.

“Birds are every bit as important to our environment and to our national identity as the beaver, a large, primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic rodent once at the centre of a flourishing top-hat industry,” said John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “The RCGS and its magazine Canadian Geographic had their ‘feathers ruffled’ over the fact that on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday, the country still does not have a national bird. So we’re here this evening to further explore that idea, and more to the point, to determine what bird best represents this great country.”

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, provided opening remarks and was active on Twitter throughout the debate, egging on supporters of various birds.

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna delivers opening remarks at the Great Canadian National Bird Debate on Sept. 19. (Photo: Tamam Ahmed Jama)

The debate stirred up a much broader discussion on social media, as #CanadaBird quickly became the top trending hashtag in the country — and was still going strong the following day. These tweets capture the flavour of the night:

In spite of the lighthearted banter, however, McKenna, the panellists, the RCGS and its partners all echoed a central message: all birds are important, and no matter what species receives the honour, Canada needs a national bird.

“It’s clear we love our birds,” said McKenna. “They are an integral part of our culture, and they play a critical role in our ecosystems. They eat insects, disperse seeds, pollinate plants, and they are also a critical indicator of a healthy environment.”

She went on to stress that cooperation — from the local to the international level — is essential to the continued monitoring, research and conservation of Canada’s birds, and that the government is committed to continuing its partnerships with communities, provinces and indigenous peoples, and funding programs such as the Habitat Stewardship Program to benefit species at risk and habitats.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s official recommendation for Canada’s national bird will be announced at its College of Fellows Annual Dinner on Nov. 16, and a feature story about Canada’s national bird will appear in the December 2016 issue of Canadian Geographic. Get it on newsstands Nov. 21, or subscribe today.