Earth Awakes

This blog was written by Nature Canada member Steve Gahbauer and edited by Sam Nurse.

With the winter largely behind us, the ground bare of snow, and a few warm days during which the first tender signs of the infant season appear in the form of spring flowers, budding trees and emerging wildlife, Mother Earth is ready to enchant us anew. The approach of spring means the return of migratory birds. “Spring showers bring May flowers” an old saying goes. They also cause an onslaught of bugs and pesky insects, such as blackflies, gadflies, horseflies, deer flies – and the most hated – mosquitoes.
I will concentrate on our recently recommended national bird, the Gray Jay, and our national tree, the maple tree, as this is the 150th anniversary year of our young nation.

The Gray Jay:

Image of a Gray Jay

Photo of a Gray Jay

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society nominated the Gray Jay, also known as Whiskey Jack, to be Canada’s national bird. In an article about this bird, retired McGill University professor David Bird, wrote about the overall virtues of this tough bird. He says that well before most local migratory bird species have returned north to the boreal forest to breed, Gray Jays, who are not migratory and stay put for the winter, have already gotten an early start with breeding. Adults have been documented sitting on their three-egg clutches or young in their nests at temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius. Gray Jay nests are hefty structures, consisting of twigs and bark strips, thickly insulated with animal hair, lichens and feathers. The bird’s strikingly thick plumage can be “fluffed out” to create an extra layer of warm air between feathers and skin. Gray Jays like to sunbathe, but when the sun sets, they will sit on a perch through the long, cold winter nights in a state of nocturnal hypothermia, lowering their body temperature to save energy.

Whiskey Jacks are known for their cheery whistled notes, effortless flight, their opportunely and crafty way of stealing food from picnic tables, and their resourcefulness in seeking food, as well as adapting to winter conditions. Their range spans the boreal and coniferous forests in every province and territory. Each bird breeds and overwinters in the same territory year-round. The Gray Jay population has been fairly stable in Canada since 1970. However, the species is declining along the southern edge of its range.

The Canadian Maple:

To mark Canada’s 150th birthday this year, let’s celebrate one of the most iconic and symbolic wild species that Canada knows – the maple tree. Of the many species of maples in the world, only ten are native to Canada. These are the sugar maple, black maple, mountain maple, big-leaf maple, red maple, Douglas maple, vine maple, Manitoba maple, silver maple and striped maple.

The sugar maple prefers deep, fertile, moist, well-drained soils with some lime content. It is found on the Canadian Shield, throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Decomposing leaves enrich the soil by reducing the acidity and increasing the mineral content. Sugar maples tolerate heavy shade for many years and begin to grow normally when an opening in the canopy occurs.

Image of a maple tree

Photo of a maple tree

Honeybees favour the maple’s flowers at the beginning of spring, while many butterflies will feast on the tree’s sap. Animals like the Moose, Snowshoe Hare, White-tailed Deer, as well as Red, Grey and Flying Squirrels, all nourish themselves with the sugar maple’s buds, branches, seeds and leaves. Even Porcupines aren’t averse to chomping down on its bark and upper stem. The maple also offers shelter for many birds and insects. Its leaves are home (at least for a time) to nearly 300 moth and butterfly species. Songbirds build their nests in the spring in the sugar maple, while cavity nesters like Wood Ducks, Screech Owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Common Goldeneye and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers use the tree for shelter and to raise their young.

You can thank First Nations peoples the next time you dig into a pancake breakfast as they have been collecting sap from the sugar maple tree years before Europeans landed on Canadian soil. At the first signs of spring, First Nations groups packed up their belongings and created temporary huts in a sugar bush. They cut the bark, fixed hand-carved wooden troughs into the trunks and collected the sap with wooden bowls. Then they brought the bowls to their sugar huts to turn the sap into syrup by placing hot stones inside the pots of sap, reducing the sap until it reached a syrupy consistency. Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup; in 2014 alone, our maple product exports were valued at $310 million.

How the Maple Leaf landed on the Canada Flag:

In 1925, the Privy Council started the search for a design for the Canadian flag. Little did they know that it would take 40 years for a flag design to be officially adopted by the nation. There were plenty of clues that the maple leaf would have a starring role. Both French and English Canadians considered the maple leaf a Canadian emblem since the 1700s. In 1834, the St. Jean-Baptiste Society of Quebec even adopted the maple leaf as a symbol for the region. Moreover, the maple leaf adorned the badges of sailors and soldiers in the first and second world wars. The maple leaf was a shoe-in. After years of indecision, a House of Commons committee took charge of the process, worked their way through more than 2,000 designs, and finally agreed on the single maple leaf. On February 15, 1965, the National Flag of Canada was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill.  (Source: Canadian Wildlife Federation)

Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation, Ontario Nature, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Bird Studies Canada, and field notes.

Earlier Nature Notes are archived and accessible here by clicking on “Nature Notes”.

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