For the Birds Radio Program: Reconsidering Alaska's State Bird: Ptarmigan vs. Raven

Original Air Date: Jan. 7, 2005 Rerun Dates: Feb. 23, 2006; Aug. 2, 2005

Some people think the “fool hen,” Alaska’s state bird, should be replaced by a smarter species.

Duration: 4′21″


Raven vs. Ptarmigan

Every one of the fifty nifty United States has an official state bird. Most states choose a popular and well-known songbird—Wisconsin and Michigan’s robin represents Connecticut as well, the chickadee represents 2 states, the mockingbird represents 5, the Western Meadowlark 6, and cardinal fully 7states. Oklahoma’s state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, isn’t such a widespread species, but it’s so beautiful and conspicuous from early spring through fall in Oklahoma, the very heart of its range, that its small wonder the people of that state chose it. It’s harder to understand how Delaware and Rhode Island chose domestic chickens, especially Delaware’s Blue Hen, which is actually a mythical bird, not even a real chicken—it would be like Wisconsin choosing the hodag or South Dakota the jackalope as it’s official mammal.

For the most part, people are fairly satisfied with their state birds, or at least don’t care enough about the whole concept to feel dissatisfied with them. But every now and then, a group does get a hankering to question the bird chosen to represent their state, and tries to make a change. Several times conservation or birding groups have tried to change Michigan’s state bird from the common, everyday robin to Kirtland’s Warbler—a species that breeds nowhere in the world but in Michigan. And I’ve tried to make the chickadee Minnesota’s emergency auxiliary backup state bird, to serve each year during the 6 months of the year when loons have flown the coop. And now apparently that same impulse is hitting some Alaskans. The Alaska state bird, the Willow Ptarmigan, is a beautiful grouse, and unlike our familiar partridge changes its plumage from winter white to a lovely blend of colors that help it blend in with rocks and lichens during summer. Every year when I was a teacher my students selected it as the species with the weirdest bird call in the universe. But as wonderful as the Willow Ptarmigan is in some ways, it does fall short in the IQ department—it’s often called the fool hen because its so instinctively trusting in cryptic coloration that it doesn’t do much of anything to avoid danger. In late December, the Anchorage Daily News ran a story and editorial about the raven—its intelligence, survival instincts, and beauty, which inspired Dale R. Lindsey to send a letter to the editor on January 6. He wrote:

Your recent article…and follow-up editorial … caused a rekindling of my long-held thoughts about the raven replacing the mentally impaired ptarmigan as Alaska’s state bird. With the Legislature about to convene, it’s imperative that a long-range fiscal plan, gas pipeline, Permanent Fund POMV, and transportation infrastructure spending be set aside in favor of finally anointing the raven as the symbol of what we Alaskans are.

To further articulate these sentiments, I offer the following:

They soar like a chicken and sing like a hen

If danger is near they’re the last to know when.

They’re dumb as an oyster and shaped like a pear,

Only their feathers disguise that they’re there.

Some states chose cardinals, Hawaii the nene,

But we’re the only ones stuck with a ninny.

The raven conversely is bold and he’s sleek,

A much better choice from tail to his beak.

He’s crafty, he’s cunning, he’s unique among states,

From all of the options, he’s proven he rates.

He’s shown us his merit by surviving the Slope,

So let’s vote for the raven and jettison the dope.

– Dale R. Lindsey