For the Birds Radio Program: State Birds

Original Air Date: March 10, 1999

Laura can’t help but wonder why the Blue Jay isn’t the state bird for a single state. (This program definitely aired this month, the day before the program on provincial birds.)

Audio missing


For the second time in 1999, we find ourselves in the middle of a National Blue Jay Awareness Month. This occurrence, which happens once in a blue moon, celebrates the most beautiful and familiar American bird that is not recognized as a state bird of any state. Cardinals are wonderful but they’ve been honored by seven states—that seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it? And the Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states. The Eastern Meadowlark may look virtually identical, but it’s simple whistle isn’t as evocative as the Western Meadowlark’s rich, bubbly song, and so the Eastern Meadowlark hasn’t been honored as state bird of a single state.

The robin is duller in both plumage and brain power than the Blue Jay, yet it’s the state bird of three states. Black-capped Chickadees have been chosen by Maine and Massachusetts, a fine choice for states that experience real winter. In my opinion, chickadees should serve as Minnesota and Wisconsin’s emergency auxiliary backup state birds when loons and robins fly the coop for the season.

Rhode Island commemorates a chicken, the Rhode Island Red, and Delaware’s Blue Hen is not only just a chicken, it’s not even a real one. Delaware’s soldiers in the American Revolution were called blue hens after the mythical Blue Hen whose offspring made ace fighting cocks. Alabama also chose a state bird that symbolizes the military, in its case Civil War soldiers. Alabama’s fighting men were called the yellow-hammers, and they sported flicker feathers on their hats. So the flicker makes an historically apt and ornithologically real state bird for them.

Virginia’s state bird is the cardinal, but I’m sure Thomas Jefferson would have preferred that the state he loved so much would commemorate the bird he loves above all others, the mockingbird. Jefferson kept a mockingbird as a pet, and boasted that this bird’s songs topped anything that English birds could offer. Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas all those the mockingbird, so at least the bird isn’t slighted.

If I were choosing a state bird, I would want something that embodied something unique about a state. I count among my favorite state birds Louisiana’s Brown Pelican, Minnesota’s loon, New Mexico’s roadrunner, and Oklahoma’s Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. What could possibly have been a better choice for Maryland than the Baltimore Oriole? The gull that Utah honors saved Mormon settlers from a huge infestation of grasshoppers. They honor the California Gull out of a sense of both gratitude and history. And I particularly like Alaska’s choice of the bird with the weirdest call in the universe. Not even a Blue Jay can top the Willow Ptarmigan’s for sheer silliness.

Blue Jays may not sound that bizarre, but they are noisy and rude, and they love squawking about and spreading gossip and scandal. And Blue Jay plumage is the exact color of the dress Monica Lewinsky neglected to wash. Jays aren’t much for dry cleaning either. If the Blue Jay can’t be a state bird, we should at least name it official American bird of the nineties.