Q: My son Davis, a fledgling birder and native Texan, recently spotted a disturbing factoid in his growing collection of bird books. Namely that the Lone Star State’s state bird, the Northern mockingbird, is also the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, and three other states. We suggest that Texas deserves a more inspired choice, one becoming of our exceptionalism. Would you be willing to assist in our crusade?
Adam Butler, Austin
A: The Texanist has devoted a surprising amount of time cogitating on this matter since your note landed in his inbox. In fact, to the dismay of his editor, it’s pretty much all he’s done this week. But this is not a matter to be taken lightly. To attempt to, ahem, kill the mockingbird as the state bird of Texas would cause quite a flap. The Texanist is, of course, using the word “kill” figuratively—and with his tongue in his cheek. As Davis is probably aware, it’s illegal to slay actual mockingbirds in Texas. But, still, it is unfortunate that our choice of state bird is not unique to us.
In the 1920s the General Federation of Women’s Clubs hatched the idea of naming a state bird for each state, and the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs wasted no time in nominating the Northern mockingbird to represent us. The resulting legislation, Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 8, of the 40th Regular Session of the Texas Lege, stated that “ornithologists, musicians, educators and Texans in all walks of life unite in proclaiming the mocking bird [sic] the most appropriate species for the state bird of Texas, as it is found in all parts of the state, in winter and in summer, in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the woods and hills, and is a singer of distinctive type, a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan.” Governor Dan Moody approved the measure on January 31, 1927. The Texanist’s research indicates that Texas was the very first state to choose a state bird, and, thus, the first to choose the mockingbird.
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All fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, have since designated various avian species as official symbols. Among them are numerous repeats, with the most popular being the Northern cardinal. A total of seven states are represented by the cardinal. (Though, oddly, Missouri, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, is not among them, and neither is Arizona, home of the NFL’s Cardinals.) The second most common choice is the Western meadowlark, which is the state bird of Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. And the third most common choice, as young Davis has recently discovered, is the Northern mockingbird, which, in addition to roosting as the state bird of Arkansas and Mississippi, also represents Florida, Tennessee, and, of course, Texas. The mocker even reigned as the state bird of South Carolina from 1939 to 1948, before the Palmetto State saw fit to replace it with the Carolina wren, perhaps a more suitable choice.
Picking a distinctive alternative for Texas isn’t a bad idea, although even broaching the subject will ruffle some feathers. The notion that Texas, which got to the mockingbird first, should have to search for a new bird will stick in the craw of many; shouldn’t those other mockingbird-come-lately states be forced to make the move? Alas, there is no venue with the appropriate jurisdiction for adjudicating interstate aviary squabbles. Texas will have to take the high road. But which bird fits the bill?
Among all the birds that have at one time or another called Texas home, there are some 650 from which to choose. There’s the amethyst-throated hummingbird, the blue-footed booby, the red-headed woodpecker, and the common crane. And there are dippers, thrushes, and thrashers. And cuckoos, kingfishers, and crows. And chachalacas, a species whose name the Texanist finds fun to pronounce. And grackles, a species about which the Texanist can find nothing nice to say. The roadrunner would be a fine choice for state bird, but those Wile E. New Mexicans grabbed it in 1949. And Louisiana picked the brown pelican in 1966. Additionally, a number of states have already designated the wild turkey as an official state gamebird, alongside specimens of more standard non-game, songbird-like species. The Texanist considered the wild turkey for a minute, but it’s not a very original choice. (It would, however, be a delicious one.)
No state, though, has seen fit to choose the turkey vulture or the black vulture, both of which are found in Texas. The buzzard, as many a Texan collectively refers to these two species, would be a bold choice. Folklorist J. Frank Dobie, in the Southwest Review, once wrote of the big, black birds: “Nothing in the sky is more serenely graceful.” And John Graves, in Goodbye to a River, noted that “a sky without two or three vultures wheeling and riding the thermals always looks empty.” The Texanist recently read that Orville and Wilbur Wright modeled the wings of their first powered airplane after those of the turkey vulture. Plus, without vultures, roadways all across Texas would be marred by impassable, stinking heaps of rotting animal carcasses. We do owe these birds a debt of gratitude. Then again, the buzzard’s “song” is an unsettling grunt-like hiss and its most-noted defense mechanism is projectile vomiting, which, considering that diet, is also rather unsettling. Rule of thumb: A bird cannot be your state bird if the sound of its song is not all that different than the sound of its retching.
For assistance in addressing your worthy question, the Texanist reached out to Victor Emanuel for his thoughts on the matter. Emanuel, in case you don’t know, is one of the world’s foremost birdmen, and a Texan who’s been building his ornithological bona fides for more than seventy years. Over the decades he has chronicled a whopping six thousand species of birds across all the world’s continents and even released a memoir, One More Warbler, just two years ago.
Emanuel, who seemed happy to entertain this query, conceded that the turkey and black vulture are wonderful flyers but regards the plumage of both to be unbecoming of the position of state bird. He, too, noted the unattractive roadkill-eating habit, but pointed out that such famed species as our national bird, the bald eagle, and the crested caracara, a.k.a. the Mexican eagle, are also scavenging carrion eaters.
“I completely agree with that young man,” Emanuel said of the central point of your note, and then proceeded to offer his choice for a replacement. “Our state bird should be the scissor-tailed flycatcher, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. It is the official bird of the Texas Ornithological Society. More scissor-tails breed in Texas than in any other part of the world. The body of the bird is light gray, but the bend of the wing and the underside of the wings are lovely colors of red and bright pink. The return of the first scissor-tails in the spring is always a special event for birders. It has a very long black and white tail. When birders come to Texas the scissor-tailed flycatcher is one of the birds that delights and impresses them the most.”
Alas, Emanuel then noted that the scissor-tail is already the state bird of Oklahoma, which brings us back to square one.
Casually leafing through his dogeared copy of Birds of Texas: A Field Guide while consuming his afternoon sunflower seeds and iced tea, the Texanist, right there on page seventy, stumbled upon a good candidate. What about Attwater’s prairie chicken? It’s a handsome bird, noted for its impressive mating ritual, in which the male gets down with a showy dance and booming vocalizations. It’s even thought that the bird’s instinctive choreography inspired the dances of a few North American Plains Indian tribes. In addition, the Attwater’s prairie chicken, which resides on the coastal grasslands, is endangered and really took a beating during Hurricane Harvey. The wild population today, which has been aided by the Houston Zoo, is thought to be somewhere around two hundred. It’s a bird that would benefit from some loving attention—and maybe some dance lessons.
In stumping for this bird, one might note that the original reason for picking a state bird, according to the women’s clubs back in the twenties, was to foster the protection, conservation, and “more intelligent and sympathetic understanding of our feathered friends.” Attwater’s prairie chicken is certainly in need of all of those.
Plus, it has never been known to projectile vomit putrid roadkill.
Think about it. And good luck to you and young Davis both. May y’all’s life lists be long.
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