For the Birds Radio Program: State Birds

Original Air Date: Feb. 3, 1988 Rerun Dates: Oct. 4, 1991

State birds are selected for a wide range of reasons.

Duration: 4′00″


(Recording of a Common Loon)

Just about everyone knows that the state bird of Minnesota is the loon, though not many people know or remember just how it came to be chosen. Actually, for a long time the Minnesota state bird was the Goldfinch. But in 1949 the Minnesota legislature, which apparently had nothing more pressing on their minds, appointed a commission to decide whether this was really the best choice. The commission came up with five criteria which they felt a state bird should meet: “1) Since this is to be a distinctive trademark or insignia for the State, it should be a bird which no other state has as State bird. 2) It should be fairly well known, though not necessarily abundant. 3) It should occur throughout the state at least during the nesting season and preferably during the entire year. 4) It should be a strikingly marked bird whose pattern, even in black and white, would lend itself well to use in insignia. and 5) It should have some special significance for Minnesota.”

The commission submitted a slate of eight candidates–the Pileated Woodpecker, wood duck, belted kingfisher, killdeer, scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, mourning dove, and common loon. Schoolchildren overwhelmingly chose the scarlet tanager, the most boldly colored of the candidates, but no adult groups chose it. In much the same manner that they deal with many issues, the legislature was so split that they took no action.

But the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union started a major campaign to officially adopt the loon, which seemed especially evocative of the wild beauty of a land of 10,000 lakes. After several years of effort, they brought public opinion and the legislature around to their point of view. In 1961, the legislature passed bills making the loon official.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, didn’t waste much time or effort on its choice. It shares its state bird, the robin, with Connecticut and Michigan. In Michigan there have been several movements to replace the robin with a bird unique to Michigan, the Kirtland’s Warbler. The only place in the world this species breeds is in Michigan. Although the Michigan Audubon Society has devoted much effort to this vital issue, so far the Michigan legislature hasn’t made any changes.

Minnesota isn’t the only state that has changed its state bird over the years. North Carolina first designated the Carolina chickadee as its official avian symbol. But one of the colloquial names for this bird is the tomtit. State legislators bristled when people started calling North Carolina the Tomtit State, so they organized a vote among schoolchildren to find something more impressive. Predictably, the Carolina kids were swayed by the color red, and voted the cardinal their state bird in spite of the fact that it is also the state bird of six other states.

Some state bird choices were based on the glorification of war memories. The militant ladies of Alabama chose the flicker, or yellow-hammer, in honor of Alabama soldiers in the Confederacy, and Delaware honored her Revolutionary soldiers with a legendary bird. Legend told of a blue hen whose offspring made ace fighting cocks, and so Delaware soldiers were nicknamed blue hens–not because they laid a lot of eggs or because they had a lot of fighting chicks, but because they themselves were brave. Apparently not all chickens are chicken.

(Recording of a Loon)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”