Environment
6:30 am
Fri May 24, 2013

Florida's State Bird Shouldn't Be The Mockingbird (Or The Flamingo)

Northern mockingbirds are usually about ten inches in length, with a fifteen-inch wingspan, grayish upper portions, white undersides, and white patches on the tail and wings. The female has slightly less whiteness in its feathers than the male.
Northern mockingbirds are usually about ten inches in length, with a fifteen-inch wingspan, grayish upper portions, white undersides, and white patches on the tail and wings. The female has slightly less whiteness in its feathers than the male.
Credit flheritage.com

In a "bird-rich" state like Florida, does the commonplace northern mockingbird deserve to reign as the official state bird? The Birdist's Nicholas Lund thinks not.

In a hilarious, spot-on piece that appeared last week on Slate (which has a mixed track record when it comes to writing about birds), the birding blogger took a scathing look at the 50 states' official state birds and assessed who got it right and who blew it entirely. His opinion of Florida bestowing the honor upon the mockingbird? Let's just say he does not agree with the decision. 

I am finishing this post the next day because I had to go buy a new computer after I threw my last one out the window when I read that Florida's state bird was the northern mockingbird. I cannot think of a more pathetic choice for one of the most bird-rich states in the nation. What's their state beverage, a half-glass of warm tap water? 

Two things -- One: Um, it's obviously orange juice, duh. Two: He's right -- Florida certainly could do better. The humble little mockingbird is a pleasant enough creature, but it doesn't exactly scream "Welcome to Florida" (even if the "dirty" birds do spend an inordinate amount of time "singing their stupid heads off on top of dumpsters").

According to the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, the bird "is a superb songbird and mimic. Its own song has a pleasant lilting sound and is, at times, both varied and repetitive." The bird was put in place in 1927 under Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 3. Insofar as the site can be trusted, a respondent on WikiAnswers claims the bird won over the Legislature in part because "the melody of its music has delighted the heart of residents and visitors to Florida from the days of the rugged pioneer to the present comer." Tell that to anyone who's ever been kept awake at night by a nesting mockingbird during mating season. 

The fact stands that four other states have the same official bird; Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. It's as overused as the northern cardinal (five states) and the western meadowlark (six states), and Lund makes the convincing argument that every state should have its own bird. 

That said, Lund's suggestion of promoting the American flamingo to the position of state bird is wrong on several counts.

First, a person could spend a lifetime living in Florida and only see one of these birds in tourist sites like Flamingo Gardens or the zoo. Sure, there's an off (off, off) chance that you'll spot a wild flamingo flying about in Key Biscayne or certain hard-to-reach birding destinations in Everglades National Park, but it's really unlikely. If any non-birders ever tell you that they've spotted a flamingo in the wild in Florida, it was probably this guy instead. 

Second, a flamingo? For Florida? C'mon -- a little cliched, no? 

The Florida scrub jay would seem a natural fit as state bird. It's an endemic, gregarious and absolutely beautiful. But as one of my nature-loving, Florida birder friends pointed out during a recent discussion on this very topic, the jay's range is too limited to properly represent the state as a whole.

The same could be said for endangered species like the snail kite and the Florida grasshopper sparrow (which, at present time, doesn't have great odds of surviving in the long run). Meanwhile, the swallow-tailed kite is one of the coolest birds ever to cruise Florida's skies, but the birds are part-time residents, spending most of their lives in South America, only returning state-side for summer breeding. 

Great choices do abound, including the osprey (a common and engaging sight in water-rich Florida), wood stork, magnificent frigatebird and anhinga. Heck -- even the cute little palm warbler would at least give a nod to the tropical vibe of much of the state, even if it is only a winter resident (not unlike much of the state's human population).

My personal choice would be the afore-referenced roseate spoonbill. It's got the benefit of having a striking pink plumage like the flamingo, but the advantage of telling a more accurate story of Florida's native flora and fauna.

Read Lund's complete list of "state bird improvements" here. What would be your choice for a new state bird?