The idea of naming official state birds grew out of the first great American environmental movement. This began late in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th. It numbered among its achievements the founding of the national forest system and the creation of laws protecting songbirds from capture or killing. The campaign for naming state birds was a sort of PR operation designed to get people, especially young people, emotionally involved with birds.
Lately, of course, we have been naming official state things at a furious rate. Illinois now has an official state mammal and an official state fish, and the legislature is considering which kind of Illinois dirt should be honored as the official state soil. For a while, it looked like Big Jim was going to have himself named official state governor, but that threat seems to have passed.
I’d like to see the legislature name an official state geological epoch. The principal contenders would be the Pleistocene, or the Ice Age, which formed most of our landscape, and the Pennsylvanian, which put the coal in our bedrock.
There might be some objection to designating a time named after another state as our official era, but there is precedent for this in the naming of state birds. The state bird of Utah, after all, is the California gull. Larus californicus was handed this honor because of its timely rescue of the first Mormon settlers from an invasion of locusts. The locusts were about to devour a desperately needed wheat crop when a flock of gulls descended from the heavens and ate the bugs.
Twenty-eight different birds have been honored as official state birds. Four, besides the California gull, are themselves named after states, but all of these were named for the states that subsequently honored them. California’s state bird is the California quail. The uniqueness of that state’s avifauna provided several choices. The California thrasher, which lives only in California and Baja California, would have made another good one.
South Carolina chose the Carolina wren as its state bird. Hawaii chose the Hawaiian goose, also known as the nene. Oceanic archipelagoes like Hawaii usually have large numbers of endemic birds, species that live there and nowhere else. The nene is just one of many Hawaiian endemics, most of which are now on the endangered list.
Rhode Island chose as its official state bird the Rhode Island Red, a breed of chicken. One other state took the domestic fowl route: Delaware’s state bird is a breed of chicken called the blue hen.
We might include one other species in our eponymous list: the Baltimore oriole, which is the state bird of Maryland. However, strictly speaking, the oriole is named after Lord Baltimore, the British Catholic nobleman who founded the Maryland colony as a refuge for his coreligionists, and not after the city. Lord Baltimore’s colors were orange and black, just like the bird’s.
Even more strictly speaking, there is no longer any such thing as a Baltimore oriole. A few years ago, the American Ornithologists Union decided that the eastern Baltimore oriole and the western Bullock’s oriole were really just variants of the same species. There is a committee of the AOU whose sole function is the creation of standard English names for birds, and the committee decided that the newly lumped species should be called the northern oriole.
This is a typical committee name. The academics in this group seem to have a bias against names that are needlessly descriptive, apt, or colorful. However, since they feel obliged to provide at least one adjective for every species, they have compiled a list of bland, colorless, all-purpose words that can be combined with any noun to produce a bird name. Their favorite adjectives are “eastern,” “western,” “northern,” and “southern.” If none of those seems ordinary enough, they fall back on “common” and “American.”
For example, five states, ranging east from Texas to Florida, have chosen the mockingbird as their state bird. This familiar dooryard bird, indelibly associated in the American mind with magnolias and grits, is officially the northern mockingbird. The justification for this lame bit of nomenclature is that there are several other mockingbirds in Central and South America, and this one is the most northerly of its genus. However, none of the Central and South American species is named the southern mockingbird, so the northern tacked onto the name of our mockingbird is totally gratuitous.
Birders tend to get upset by silly names like these. We feel some obligation to follow correct forms, but if we mention a northern mockingbird to a nonbirding Mississippian he’s liable to think we are referring to a mocker that lives up here in the land of snow and ice and not to the noisy mimic that nests in the mimosa tree in his yard.
The state of Alabama has stood against the tide by insisting that its state bird be called the yellowhammer. The only woodpecker chosen by any of the 50 states, the bird is named for the bright yellow on the underside of its wing feathers and for its woodpeckerish habit of drumming on hollow trees. Outside of Alabama, this vividly named bird becomes the AOU’s northern flicker.
The cardinal–officially the northern cardinal–is the most popular of our state birds. Seven states, including Illinois, have chosen this redbird. The other cardinal states are North Carolina, both Virginias, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. This region is the center of abundance for the species. In fact, in 1929, when the Illinois legislature made its choice, cardinals were still rather rare here in the northern part of the state. It must have been very gratifying for the legislature to pick a state bird that didn’t live in Chicago.
The meadowlark is the second most popular state bird. It dominates the Great Plains as the choice of Wyoming, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota, and then hops the mountains to reign as the official bird of Oregon. Of course, we have two meadowlarks in North America. In this part of the country, we see mainly the eastern. Out on the plains, the western would be the usual species.
Colorado broke with its meadowlark-loving neighbors by choosing the lark bunting, a prairie finch with a richly varied song, but one that’s a questionable choice for the state. The bird does not live in the mountains, so it only represents about one third of the state. Maybe the Colorado legislature is even more biased than Illinois’.
South Dakota has earned itself the dubious distinction of being the only state to choose a wild bird that is not native to North America. The ring-necked pheasant has done very well there, mostly at the expense of native prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. White settlers have also done well at the expense of the native Sioux. Perhaps the symmetry between birds and humans influenced the state’s choice.
Our neighbors to the north, Wisconsin and Michigan, both made the rather banal choice of the American robin as their state bird. It seems they could have done better than that. The robin breeds all over the continent, and has no special connection to the north country. New Hampshire made the purple finch its state bird, and Vermont chose the hermit thrush. These are both north-woods birds, perfectly fitting choices. Minnesota moved away from songbirds completely, selecting the common loon (note yet another of the AOU’s favorite adjectives) as its state bird.
Maine made an ambiguous choice, declaring the chickadee to be its state bird. Maine actually has two species of chickadees, the black-capped, the same bird we have around here, and the boreal, a north-woods species.
Louisiana, bordered to the west, north, and east by mockingbird states, looked to its southern coast and picked the brown pelican as its emblematic bird. Before the banning of DDT, pelicans had nearly disappeared from the Louisiana coasts, so the Bayou State faced the grim possibility of becoming the first state to extirpate its state bird. Fortunately, pelicans have been making a comeback and can once again be found on the Louisiana shore.
Bluebirds are a popular choice. Two states–Missouri and New York–chose the eastern bluebird, while Nevada and Idaho selected the mountain bluebird. You may wonder how the AOU allowed such a descriptive adjective as “mountain” to slip into the nomenclature. Well, there is already a western bluebird, and “common” and “American” probably didn’t seem right for a species that does not live east of the Rockies, so the academics were forced to step outside their usual bounds in adjective selection.
My favorite state bird, the roadrunner, belongs to New Mexico. While the rest of the nation was going mainly for sweet, feathered songsters, the New Mexicans decided their state was best represented by a big, fierce, ugly bird that manages to survive very difficult circumstances by being smart, adaptable, and willing to eat anything. Here is a real role model for our children.