OTTAWA - The Royal Canadian Geographic Society can expect to ruffle some feathers by choosing a national bird in time for Canada's 150th birthday next year.

An online survey over the last 20 months has the pecking order down to five contenders, ranging from urban regulars to boreal forest ghosts.

The society, which announced on Labour Day weekend the voting results from almost 50,000 online submissions, will stage a debate Monday in Ottawa on the relative merits of the five finalists and whether any of them should be disqualified.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will kick off the debate, but the Liberals have not yet said whether they will officially designate a national bird, although the previous Conservative government was very keen on the project.

Three of the five birds with the most votes are already official provincial birds, including the common loon in Ontario, Quebec's snowy owl and the black-capped chickadee in New Brunswick. The gray jay, commonly known as the whiskey jack, and the Canada goose round out the top five.

Aaron Kylie, the editor of the society's Canadian Geographic magazine, says the group was blown away by the level of interest and the impassioned arguments over a national bird — including some strenuous opposition in Quebec to Canada "absconding" with the province's avian symbol.

Others, meanwhile, were adamant that migratory birds like the Canada goose should not qualify.

Ironically Canadian expatriates — including snow birds — were welcome to vote, although the project made some effort to stop multiple voting by individuals.

Kylie stressed that this was a non-scientific, straw poll, but noted the impassioned public response included thousands of thoughtful, written submissions.

Painter Robert Bateman wrote a page-long ode to the gray jay. The country's leading ornithologist David Bird waded in early and ended up becoming part of the project. Author Margaret Atwood tweeted about the contest.

"They were deep, rich, personal experiences that people had had with birds that connected them with the species," Kylie said.

"The engagement factor was just off the charts. It stunned me. I had no idea this thing was going to take off the way that it did and connect with so many Canadians."

Many voters wanted to choose a bird they felt embodied stereotypical Canadian attributes, which Kylie said resulted in some rather comical arguments.

Ultimately, the society would love to see the national government adopt an official national bird, whether or not it's the one selected by the society's National Bird Project.

"If this thing is successful in having Canada recognize a national avian emblem, that in and of itself is the success of this campaign," he said. "By extension it's an appreciation of our wild spaces."

Monday's debate in Ottawa will be livestreamed for the public (

The final choice will be announced Nov. 16.

— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

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