by Cole Henry Forster


If you had anything resembling a normal millennial upbringing in Canada, your first pocket money had birds all over it. I can still remember my earliest allowance, the deep blue $5 rectangle and that handsome kingfisher staring back at me, promising me the world, or at least some purchasing power at the nearest convenience store. While it might seem trivial to fixate on the weird illustrations that have adorned our retired banknotes, I think they represent something significant about the Canadian spirit. 

The ‘Birds of Canada’ series was introduced by the Bank of Canada in 1986, providing a much needed update to the stiflingly British ‘Scenes of Canada’ notes of the 1970s. Slick, modern (for the early 80s), and distinctly Canadian, the BoC supposedly chose birds as subject matter because of their inherent neutrality. Each of the species that was selected is indigenous to Canada, and the geographic distribution does not appear to favour any particular region of the country. The $2 bill (yes, we had a two dollar bill, we didn’t get the toonie until 1996 remember?) featured a pair of American robins. As I mentioned, the $5 displayed a gorgeous belted kingfisher. On the $10 was an osprey retrieving his lunch from the water.

By Source, Fair use, Wikipedia

The $20, another personal favourite, foregrounded a lake-dwelling loon. The $50 had a snowy owl and on the obverse a puzzled looking Mackenzie King. Now you’re wondering when the Canada goose shows up, or perhaps you remember, ah yes, it was on the $100. It’s not really worth mentioning the $1000 bank note; unless you’re an active and money-handling member of an organized crime syndicate you’ve likely never seen one. Anyway, it had some pine grosbeaks on it. I don’t know what those are and neither do you. 

My point, in holding your hand as we walk down memory lane, is that putting birds on our money was the most Canadian thing we could possibly have done in the 1980s. While British banknotes of the same era figured the typically august cadre of national heroes: Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington etc., and the Americans were still plastering their greenbacks with dead presidents, Canada decided...birds. 

A whole host of new anti-counterfeiting measures were introduced in the new series, including the OSD (optical security device), a little strip of film that changed colour when held to the light. And so, the BoC succeeded in creating one of the most secure instruments of currency in the world. While Yankees will forever mock our curious ‘monopoly money,’ I think we can rest assured that our bills are superior by virtually every measure. Even now, as we’ve transitioned to polymer notes (the Birds of Canada series is unbelievably easy to forge with an inkjet printer), a Canadian tradition of minting bizarre but ostensibly wholesome legal tender has prevailed.