National Animals and Birds

Ratan Varghese - 2A Electrical
Posted on: March 25, 2017

Ask Google the question “Why do countries have national animals?” The top result is Wikipedia’s “List of national animals”, and the second is a “Teen Politics Essay”. Yep, this bodes well for anyone seeking an actual answer.

Just as difficult is the question of why some countries have national birds and some do not. According to the Department of Canadian Heritage, the official keeper of national Canadian symbols, Canada doesn’t have a national bird and has never had one. Why? Just because.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society has a national bird proposal though: the grey jay. Don’t call it “gray” with an ‘A’: that’s an Americanism unseemly for such an essential national symbol. However this name was the one granted by the American Ornithologists’ Union. It used to be called the “Canada jay”, but that was over 50 years ago. Another unofficial name is the “whiskey jack”, based on the “Wisakedjack”, a friendly trickster spirit in Cree mythology.

These little grey feather blobs are found in every province and territory. They especially enjoy cold forests up north where nobody lives. They have become very comfortable around humans and approach them for food. That behaviour is as stereotypically Canadian as a bird can get. Compare that with the bald eagle: a large, powerful apex predator. Maybe one day the whiskey jack will have the bald eagle’s level of fame, but one wonders if it is worth it to advertise this bird so hard. Perhaps the precedent set by other official zoological symbols would be helpful.

Canada has a national animal (the beaver) and a national horse (the Canadian horse). Oh yes, you read right. Canada has a national horse separate from the national animal. Canada is not even unique in this respect: Norway has a national horse as well, the Fjord horse. There are other countries who have a national animal which is a horse, without a separate “national horse” position. Azerbaijan has the Karabakh horse, which they are trying to preserve with breeding and protection programs. North Korea skipped that inefficiency by picking the mythical chollima as their national animal. The chollima is supposed to have wings and move too fast for any mortal to mount. It’s not quite official: it is a symbol used by the North Korean government in all sorts of propaganda, but the claim that the chollima is the official animal comes from Unreal Facts. Unreal Facts names Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia names Unreal Facts. Unreal, right?

You might reason that a national symbol is supposed to inspire pride in one’s national identity, which makes the chollima effective and the whiskey jack a poor choice. However some national symbols are too obscure to fill that role. The Canadian horse can’t stroll down the Trans-Canada highway. At least “horses” are a well known category of thing. Quick, think of what Canada’s national tartan might be (readers of Scottish descent might know). It was declared a national symbol in 2011, according to Canadian government websites. The related Wikipedia article lists the date but also claims the tartan is not official yet, linking to a non-existent page. That’s some inspiring respect for the national tartan.

Why must only countries have official horses, tartans, and birds? For the same reason that such official symbols exist at all: who knows, honestly? The Hello Internet podcast decided to have an “unofficial official” bird, and an “unofficial official” rice rat. Why stop at podcasts run by 2 dudes? You, a singular dude/dudette/dude-non-binary, could unilaterally decree that you have an official animal and nobody would stop you. Remember, having a spirit animal is cultural appropriation, having a patronus is copyright infringement but having an official animal is just freedom of speech.

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