For the Birds Radio Program: Emergency Auxiliary Backup State Bird

Original Air Date: Oct. 8, 1993

The loon may make a fine Minnesota state bird for spring and summer, but Laura has another idea for fall and winter. (3:32) Date confirmed.

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Loons are collecting in migratory groups on Lake Superior now. The latest date a loon was ever recorded in Wisconsin in winter was January 3, 1960. Six loons have been recorded in mid-winter in Minnesota over the years, but it is clearly in their best interest to light out for the season. They eat ocean fish and drink salt water all winter, having a special gland between their eyes that filters excess salinity from their blood and secretes it like tears through ducts near their eyes.

Robins are flocking, too, now. The state bird of both Michigan and Wisconsin prefers spending its winter in a balmier climate. But at least robins take their responsibilities as official state bird more seriously than loons do—we can always find at least a few robins somewhere in north country even ˆn the dead of winter. All a robin needs is plenty of mountain ash berries and a little stream and it has no trouble making it through the worst that winter can offer. Fluffed out against the cold, a robin’s glowing plumage in the midst of mountain ash berries warms a northlander’s spirit as tangibly as a wood fire warms our hands. So Michigan and Wisconsin can keep their robin.

But loons. They do make a fine state bird from ice-out in April through the summer. Their haunting calls and interesting ways pretty much define what owning a cabin on the lake is all about, and their striking plumage pattern makes an effective if inappropriate logo for gambling. But there’s a long spell each year when Minnesotans can only find our state bird swimming on lottery commercials. During yucky cold October rains, November storms, and December through February deep freezes, we don’t want some fair-weather bird representing us, the state that inspired Bullwinkle’s Frostbite Falls.

It took years of committee study and campaigning by school groups, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, and I don’t know who else before the Minnesota legislature finally adopted the loon as official state bird in 1961. Now all kinds of companies, from greeting card printers to toilet manufacturers, have invested enormous amounts of money in the loon. I certainly don’t want to force our state bird to resign at this late date.

But even Miss America has a backup in the event that she cannot fulfill her duties. I say we start a campaign right now to declare an emergency auxiliary state bird—one that can serve in the capacity as state bird from mid-October through mid-April every year, and let’s make it the Black-capped Chickadee.

A chickadee weighs a third of an ounce. It would take about 432 of them to balance a single loon. But one tiny chickadee can warm Northlanders more than all the loon refrigerator magnets in the world can in the face of a blizzard or ice storm. Yep. Let the loons bask in the sunshine and rest up for the season. We won’t feel deserted but warm and cozy in the presence of our emergency auxiliary backup winter state bird, the chickadee.