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Vince Staten: Some might not like choice of state bird, but it was democratic

Staff Report • May 21, 2013 at 9:44 PM

If you paid any attention at all in Tennessee history class in eighth grade, then you know that the Tennessee state bird is the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), so designated by the General Assembly in 1933.

If you read The Birdist, which identifies itself as a “website about birding,” then you know that Nicholas Lund thinks most state bird choices, including Tennessee’s, are a joke. “There are a million cardinals, a scattering of robins, and just a general lack of thought put into the whole thing. States should have to put more thought into their state bird than I put into picking my socks in the morning. ‘Uh, state bird? I dunno, what’re the guys next to us doing? Cardinal? OK, let’s do that too. Yeah put it on all the signs. Nah, no time to research the bill color, let’s just go.’”

Lund doesn’t understand why Tennessee picked the mockingbird. “What is it with mockingbirds? They are garbage birds that eat dumpster trash! Is that what you want to identify with, Tennessee?”

What should our state bird be? Lund says the Tennessee warbler.

He may be right about states spending “no time to research bill color” — “Welcome to Virginia” signs have the state bird, the cardinal, with a yellow bill! (It should be reddish) — but no thought? Not us.

The campaign for a state bird began with the Tennessee Ornithological Society, a group founded in 1915 in Nashville and “devoted to the study and conservation of birds.” And the Tennessee Ornithological Society took its task very seriously.

Ben Coffey, president of the society, editorialized in the December 1932 issue of the group’s newsletter, The Migrant: “Inasmuch as Tennessee is one of only five states which have not selected a state bird, and there has been some local agitation for such an emblem, the Tennessee Ornithological Society is the logical and authoritative organization to originate and conduct the project of selecting a suitable choice to be presented to the Legislature for official action.”

Coffey suggested a complicated process that involved a committee selecting 15 possibilities and asking newspapers to publish a series of articles about the birds. Readers would be encouraged to mail their pick to the State Department of Fish and Game.

A committee of five that included Bruce Tyler of Johnson City as the East Tennessee representative created the list of 15, based on “beauty and distinctiveness of marking and song, economic value, and permanent and nesting residence.”

The 15 were mockingbird, robin, cardinal, bluebird, wood thrush, chickadee, Bewick’s wren, pileated woodpecker, flicker, brown thrasher, field sparrow, sparrow hawk, towhee, meadowlark and bobwhite.

Newspapers all over the state printed a ballot. Teachers encouraged their students to send one in.

When the votes were tallied in March 1933 the winner, by a narrow margin, was the mockingbird with 15,553 votes. Second was the robin with 15,073, followed by the cardinal 13,969, bobwhite 10,460 and bluebird 9,125. A total of 72,931 Tennesseans voted on our state bird.

Nicholas Lund may not like our choice but it was our choice. It was considered and thoughtful and, best of all, democratic. The people spoke!

(Lund’s article was reprinted in Monday’s Slate — slate.com — which is where I read it. I’m not a regular reader of the original source, The Birdist.

Lund thinks Virginia’s state bird should be the barred owl instead of the cardinal.)

Birds are not an area of my expertise so I checked with a few friends about Lund’s suggestion of the warbler, which didn’t even make the 1933 list.

My buddy Chris Wohlwend says the warbler might spend a week here all year. Tennessee just happens to be in their flight way.

Jim Beck says if it were up to him the state bird would be the blue-gray gnatcatcher. “They have very intricate nests. I watched one build a nest here in Willowbrook.”

What should be the criteria for the state bird? Most populous? Jim has the 1992 count book for this area and the number one bird was the European starling. Number two was the American crow.

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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