A Matter of States' Rites
and the Cardinal Virtues

Smithsonian, February 1985

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IT'S NOT THAT I have anything against cardinals. After all, they sometimes sound as if they'd swallowed Mozart's Magic Flute, and in fall, when fiery red males and olive-drab females flutter around together, they can put you in mind of the Red Baron's Flying Circus tangling with a flight of Sopwith Camels.

But when it comes to civic honors and sheer public adulation, enough is enough. Take the official list of 50 American state birds, for example, and the gush of bird books extolling the cardinal virtues.

Any bird fancier at all had to be delighted when the U.S. Postal Service put out its gorgeous sheet of state birds and followed with a glossy booklet full of big bird pictures, small replicas of the stamps, an explanatory text listing state birds and when they were chosen. All well and good, until you look at the feathery lineup a bit closer. A full seven states have majestic, lazy and full of licechosen the cardinal. Of course there are also meadowlarks (six), mockingbirds (five), bluebirds (four) and the good old American robin (three). There are some inevitable choices: Maryland's Baltimore oriole; the Rhode Island Red. Also a pelican (for Louisiana), a gull (for Utah), one television cartoon star (New Mexico's roadrunner), one historic fowl (Delaware's blue hen chicken, the namesake of a Revolutionary War regiment), plus assorted game birds, wrens and thrashers.

But alas, sports fans and fellow bird lovers, not a single warbler. And not so much as one hawk. Nor a wild turkey, even though Ben Franklin preferred the bird to the bald eagle as a national symbol: it was "respectable" and good eating rather than majestic, lazy and full of lice.

It's all enough to make warbler lovers and rapturous raptor people cry out for some sort of ombirdsman to guarantee fair play. Given the temper of the times, one can even imagine someone charging that all those cardinals constitute a threat to the separation of church and state.

The idea of having state birds at all did not catch on seriously until the late 1920s after some heavy lobbying by Audubon societies, schoolchildren and women's clubs. In 1929 in the a large flock of schoolboys state of Arkansas, for example, women's clubs put forward the mockingbird. At first, according to Katherine Tippetts, author of Selecting State Birds, the legislature "thought it a huge joke, but when they were given two stirring addresses ... they voted unanimously" for the mockingbird. In Colorado, one faction was for the mountain bluebird; another, led by the president of the local Audubon Society, backed the lark bunting. It was sensibly noted that other states had already picked bluebirds, and, in 1931 "when the smoke of political battle rolled away," Mrs. Tippetts reports, the bunting was in by a beak. Meanwhile, down in Florida, despite competition from pelicans, hummingbirds and a large flock of schoolboys who plumped hard for the turkey buzzard, the mellifluous mocker scored again.

The good news for ornithological agitators is that these fateful, early decisions did not prove irrevocable. After choosing the chickadee in 1933, fickle North Carolina reneged on its choice, and a decade later let itself be dazzled by the cardinal. In Ohio, the jenny wren won popular acclaim in 1928. But five years later a shameless legislature gave the title of state bird to - you guessed it - the cardinal.

Showy beauty of feather and voice played a part in defections. So, perhaps, did the fact that in the past 40 or so years the cardinal has extended its range enormously. But running through the commentary is a strain of anthropomorphic praise for the cardinal's domestic virtues likely to sway the vote of children and women's clubs. "He is an ideal spouse," says Selecting State Birds, "carrying food for the young and finally taking over their entire care." Alexander Wetmore's Song and Garden Birds of North America admiringly notes the male bird's "renewed tenderness" toward his mate each spring, his habit of feeding the female when she is incubating the eggs. In fact, the book says, the male cardinal's nurturing instinct is so strong that he sometimes feeds "nestlings of other species." One even took to stuffing the mouths of hungry young goldfish in a nearby pond!

Whatever the merits of such a feathered workadaddy, do we really need seven state bird cardinals as role models? Other, tougher bird qualities may be worthy of attention. Nothing really perverse, of course. Nobody would urge the candidacy of the cowbird, whose survival strategy has led it to lay its eggs in smaller birds' nests so they'll take care of its kids.

But what about those hawks? Graceful and courageous, they are the preeminent flyers of a land in love with speed and power. It was after watching a hawk sky­diving near Walden Pond that Thoreau wrote: "It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it."

Perhaps it's time to celebrate some good old Yankee thrift, too, as exemplified by putting food by for the future. What bird best embodies this frugal approach to life? What bird ingeniously hangs the surplus of its daily prey on thorn bushes to provide for leaner days ahead? Let's hear it for the northern shrike. In its pale gray business suit, with off-white shirt front and handsome black trim, no savings bank - or economy-minded state - could have a better feathered emblem.