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Geo-Joint: Official State Icons

Posted on January 24 2017

California just named its official state fabric: denim. An official fabric? Really? Having been born in a hospital next to the original Levi Strauss factory in San Francisco, I kinda like the designation. But states have “official” items of many, many kinds. From rocks and mammals to flowers and food dishes, legislatures love to elevate the status of things in their states to “officialdom.” By rough count, about thirty different categories of plants, animals, inanimate objects, and concepts have been adopted by various states and countries. How did all this get started?

At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, women’s groups from each of the fifty states used flowers from their home environments to decorate the displays they made to represent their state. A women’s congress at the fair proposed creating a “National Garland of Flowers” to bring it all together in one piece. The idea was that the people of each state should choose a flower, which would then be legitimized as their Official State Flower by the various state legislatures. It wasn’t long before bird lovers got into the act, and asked that their favorite two-winged species be annointed as a state representative as well. Campaigns ensued, and the first round of state birds came into being in 1927. Seven states (AL, FL, ME, MO, OR, TX and WY) elected their bird of choice that year, and others followed along over the decades. By 1966, when Louisiana chose the brown pelican, every state had its own feathered symbol.

Birds don’t abide by state borders, however, and several states share an official species. Seven of them go with the cardinal, five agreed on the mockingbird, and several other kinds of birds got chosen by two or three states. Four chose the wild turkey as their official state game bird. Game birds are a separate category. Many state birds are songbirds, but some states have gone into hair-splitting and are choosing multiple state birds representing denizens of different habits and habitats. Waterfowl, duck, and raptor are separate categories that some states have honored.

All of these bird types, however revered they may be in their respective neighborhoods, must all bow before the Big Bird, that is, the National Bird. Of course, for our nation that is the bald eagle, whose stately and powerful image symbolizes the qualities that the U.S. of A. would like to project. The fact that bald eagles sometimes dine on the rotting corpses of salmon on riverbanks doesn’t disqualify them from the office, although Ben Franklin himself disparaged the bald eagle’s character. He pointed out that they are known to steal the fish other birds have caught. He preferred the morals of the turkey, but that bird is now honored as the symbol of good eating in November. In any case, it seems that every governmental system wants its own symbol.

It comes as some surprise then, that our neighbor to the north, that beacon of niceness, honesty, and mooseburgers—Canada, of course—has no national bird! Each of the several provinces has chosen an avian sidekick, but as a nation there is so far no consensus on a flying mascot. They’re working on it though. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has run something of a popularity contest recently and found that by tally, the snowy owl is most popular, followed by the well-known symbol of the northern woods, the loon. But this plebiscite is reminiscent of an election recently held to Canada’s south—the highest vote-getter isn’t the automatic winner. Officials were just kind of sussing out the thoughts of the citizens, and the decision will be made by legislators. In this case, it may be the third-place bird who wins the title.

The birdie taking “show” position is the gray jay. They are principally a Canadian bird, though many urban Canadians are unfamiliar with them as they like the more northerly forests. A relative of the crow family, gray jays are smart and fairly bold. They are extremely resistant to cold (who else could incubate an egg at -30 degrees C?) and don’t migrate off to warmer climes when the cruel winter descends. In addition, they have the seemingly virtuous trait of mating for life, and are found thoughout the country, with populations in every province. That ubiquity could be a strong persuader in the deliberations. Given that the loon has already been crowned as Ontario’s official bird, and that the snowy owl holds that office in Quebec, the gray jay looks to be due for its own accolade. It is hoped that the decision will come forth during 2017, which is Canada’s sesquicentennial—our good neighbors have now been around as a country for a century and a half.

If I were Canadian, I’d vote for the gray jay, some of whom once flew down onto my camp table to eat the cornflakes out of my Sierra cup….while I was eating them myself! Cheeky, indeed, but engaging and friendly. A great symbol for a country.

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