Sunday, May 19, 2013

State Birds

Tam sent me this article in Slate about improvements to the state birds.  It's definitely worth reading.

I asked Robert about the range of the Connecticut warbler (the author's suggestion to replace the current state bird of Connecticut), and he sent me the following, which I present as a guest post:

"You are right, the Connecticut Warbler isn't found in Connecticut.  It is an eastern flyway migrant and the first specimen was from Connecticut, but most of them move inland after flying the length of Florida in the spring, and nest north of and around the Great Lakes.  (It is, in fact, a breeding bird maybe 50 miles north of here.)

Other errors and inappropriate choices:
Florida - American Flamingo
From his link:
Name:  American flamingo
Scientific name:  Phoeniconais ruber ruber
Range:  Columbia, Galapagos Islands, Caribbean, Venezuela

I'm sure he's seen big pink birds in Florida, thought they were Flamingos, and was actually seeing Roseate Spoonbills.  Or his birding in Florida was done at the old Hialeah Park racetrack.

Illinois - Greater Prairie Chicken.  Found in Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas, etc.  Not in Illinois, which is some 150 miles east of its range.

Maine - Black Capped Chickadee - ok its found there, along with every other northern state, but why go small when you can go with the Atlantic Puffin - Maine is the only state it breeds in. (If you want to reserve the Puffin for Newfoundland, where 95% of them breed, give Maine the Common Murre.)

Tennessee Warbler - winters in South America.  Breeds in the North Woods and points north.  Flies through Tennessee in the spring and fall as quickly as its little wings can take it. 

Washington - Glaucous-Winged Gull.  Why does he hate Washington?  Yeah, it is found there, but it is a noisy, annoying trasheater.  Also found in Washington - Harlequin Duck."

Talking to Robert about these birds made apparent that he and I use the term "endemic" slightly differently.  I use it (and interpret it) to mean a bird that is widespread in an area -- e.g., "The red-tailed hawk is endemic to Texas" (it's found all over the state of Texas [but also other places]).  Robert uses is to mean a bird that is particular to or restricted to an area -- e.g., "The golden-cheeked warbler is endemic to Texas" (it's found only in the state of Texas [but not all over the state]).  We are both right -- the word can have both meanings -- but man, it's sort of confusing!  I think I use the term "specialty" for Robert's sense of endemic -- e.g., "The golden-cheeked warbler is a Texas specialty."  But this being said, in looking at links for this post, I came across a couple of sites that used endemic in precisely the way Robert does.  Perhaps in the context of birds, endemic does generally mean "occurs nowhere else."

I like Robert's suggestions and would like to suggest the following observations and substitutions of my own:

The author seemed to frequently go with birds that are endemic in Robert's sense -- specialty birds to a state -- but not mine.  I can see doing that, though I think there is value in choosing birds that people across the state can relate to.  For instance, the golden-cheeked warbler is a wonderful Texas bird, but it's really seen (in Texas, anyway) as a wonderful Central Texas/Hill Country bird.  I think something like the red-tailed hawk, which is an exciting, super-common bird that people see all the time in Texas, might be better than something that even most people in the Hill Country haven't even seen.

The Florida suggestion of the flamingo is truly bizarre.  Florida has so many great birds.  I felt like his own criteria would lead us to a bird restricted to and named after Florida: the Florida scrub-jay.  Or how about the limpkin, a freaking cool bird that breeds all over Florida but no other US state? 

His allowance of the delightful but dirt-common-to-half-the-US black-capped chickadee for his home state undermined his argument against the American robin, northern cardinal, etc.  Robert's suggestion kicks its ass.  Hard.  He also disfavors an exotic species for South Dakota (ring-necked pheasant -- a popular bird to hunt) but suggests an exotic species for Nevada (Himalayan snow-cock).  He has separate arguments for replacing the pheasant and switching to the snow-cock, but they are not internally consistent.  This kind of makes me nuts.

Some state should choose a kingfisher as their bird just because the kingfishers are obviously the best.  Almost any state could go with the common but fabulous belted kingfisher.  If Texas were going to go with a bird that is cool, but not found all over the state, the ringed kingfisher (aka "The Big Boy" in Sally-speak) or the green kingfisher (aka "The Little Guy") would be perfect. 

I did love some of this suggestions -- e.g., sandhill crane for Nebraska.  The sandhill cranes on the Platte River is one of America's great bird spectacles, and you do not have to be a bird expert to appreciate it.  We're talking a half million big, gorgeous, loud birds being a thousand kinds of awesome.  (I haven't seen it in person yet, but I will.  I even wrote a haiku about it about 10 years ago, just based on photos and descriptions in a book about cranes that I read.  I don't know what happened to that haiku, but I'm sure it captured about 2% of the splendor of the cranes.  I really love cranes.)

On a final note:  I have always loved that Oklahoma's state bird was the scissor-tailed flycatcher.  It's a lovely, wonderful bird that I strongly associate with summers growing up.  I remember riding in the car down semi-country roads where you would see flycatcher after flycatcher along the fence line.  Unfortunately, I suspect this isn't as common now -- or maybe the places that were rural and open enough to have flycatchers hangin' out in large numbers back then have been developed now and the flycatchers have moved on to different places.  In any case, a fantastic bird and a fantastic bird choice. 

Any thoughts?


mom said...

It seems to me that the cardinal made so many state birds because it is a beautiful and striking bird. It's easy to identify and they are everywhere. Mockingbirds are also common and although, not as striking as a cardinal, is a pretty bird in it's own way. Also, it is fascinating that the mockingbird can mimic other bird calls.

The author of the article isn't acknowledging that state birds were selected many, many years ago. Bird populations were different then. There's not much point in selecting a state bird that hardly anyone sees.

Debbie said...

The author also doesn't acknowledge that each state gets to pick their own bird, so the whole picture is bound to not make sense. I did like this quote, though, "Was western meadowlark the official state bird of the entire Louisiana Purchase and they just kept it after becoming states?"

I have never paid attention to the state bird except in Texas where I had to memorize it for my Texas history class when I first moved here. I like mockingbirds (except when they are mocking my alarm clock). You get to have many bird calls in one, and I think they're pretty, too.

I always feared the Texas state bird should be the grackle. But I'm remembering a story I heard from some who were visiting Florida: they heard some tourists getting excited about seeing a Common American Grackle, so maybe they're too common to be a state bird, too.

I also wonder if the Texas state bird should be the biggest bird we have or one that sounds like a gun firing or something like that.

I think Robert's definition of endemic is the biological one and your definition is the regular one. I don't know which I'd prefer for a state bird if there's not one that's both. I guess your definition--I guess I think that people should be able to see their own state bird.

And I could see a beloved adopted exotic bird being chosen as a state bird, too, so my opinion shouldn't count!

Sally said...

I think both of you hit on a point mostly ignored by the author of the article -- that the state bird should be one that people can actually see with some regularity. Also, some of the choices he maligns -- cardinals, bluebirds, robins -- are favorite birds to many people. (A birdwatching magazine I read has an article hyped on the cover about twice a year as "How to attract cardinals to your yard!" and a yearly article on bluebird houses.)