Since 1927, the official state bird of Florida has been the northern mockingbird. You’re probably thinking the same thing as I am — the mockingbird, with all due respect, seems a little uninspiring.
It’s gray feathers, song which mimics the song of other birds and nasty temper — I’ve seen mockingbirds chase just about every other species of bird I can think of including bald eagles, hawks, ospreys and even sandhill cranes — speak more to the mystery of why it was named our state bird in the first place.
It’s time for a change. And I’m here to offer up several of my favorite musings about which bird would be a more appropriate choice to represent the Sunshine State in the winged kingdom.
Say goodbye to the mockingbird
Mockingbirds are pretty common. In fact, they are so common that they also have been named the state bird of four other states — Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee. That alone could be the best reason to make a change. Plus, Florida is a unique and colorful place so why shouldn’t we choose a state bird more representative of those qualities we love?
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg agrees with me. He has filed a bill for the 2022 legislative session beginning in January to change the state bird. While Brandes’ bill names no replacement, there were previous attempts to name the scrub jay as its successor.
Scrub jay: Why not?
Somehow, attempts to name the scrub jay as the state bird failed in 1999, 2000 and 2016. Why? In short because of National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. I guess no legislator dare cross Hammer lest they wouldn’t receive endorsements or campaign contributions.
The scrub jay is small, friendly — they will actually come land on your head when hiking in its natural habitat — and colorful. What the scrub jay isn’t is thriving. Habitat loss threatens the endangered diminutive bird. Habitat loss threatens a lot of native Floridians.
Few birds are more graceful and elegant as they glide on the warm air currents than the white-winged swallow-tailed kite. The bird is already the symbol of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail which is quite appropriate.
Everglades snail kite
Another bird facing extinction calls the Florida marshlands its home. And that is the problem. Habitat loss and complicated water management policies have threatened the bird which snacks on snails living in our state’s waters. If we ever get the water right, we get to keep the birds.
Last week, during its regularly scheduled meeting in St. Augustine, the 7-member board of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed to send a letter to the state legislature throwing its support behind the osprey. Chairman Rodney Barreto said years ago he was involved in a project with school children who selected the osprey as an alternative to the mockingbird. The fish hawk is successful about 1-in-10 times it swoops low to catch a fish, which is a very high success rate in the bird kingdom.
With all due respect to the osprey, the caracara has always been my favorite raptor. It sports a black-feathered crew cut and lives in Central Florida in a narrow range — the only place in the country other than the southwest where it can be found. In my days working in agriculture, I regularly had caracara visitors in western St. Lucie County curious about my work. Again, this is another Florida bird threatened by habitat loss.
The yellow-crowned night heron and black-crowned night heron have always been my favorite wading birds. Much shorter than their great egret or great blue heron cousins, the night herons are often solo, and more active after dark. Kind of like Florida man is.
Anyone who as spent much time outside in the woods, swamps and mangroves as I have certainly would agree that the mosquito could at least be the unofficial state bird.
Good news from National Audubon Society. The flamingo is back. Over the past five years, wild flamingos have been observed in Florida marshes for the first time since they were nearly hunted into extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s for their bright pink feathers. However, my suggestion to the state legislature is that they should actually consider the plastic flamingo. It’s natural habitat is often in a front yard or at a waterside tiki bar.
Best use of their time?
I understand Brandes probably cringes every time he sees mockingbird flitting from tree to tree in his neighborhood. But should lawmakers spend a significant amount of their time debating whether or not to change out the state bird, or what bird to select instead?
As divided as we are politically anymore, this could take up the entire legislative session and wind up unresolved anyway. I can see a brouhaha brewing between Republicans and Democrats over whether we should select the white pelican or the black-necked stilt.
I have complained in the past that selecting a new license plate to go along with Florida’s 150-or-so other specialty license plates does not actually count as meaningful legislation. Sure, the license plates may help organizations meet funding needs, but lawmakers act like we should build a statue of them to recognize them for passing a bill to put a marine mammal on an auto tag.
I’d much rather see them spend time crafting laws that actually clean water, set aside more land in the wild or plan smartly our out of control population growth.
There is only one suitable bird selection which the Florida legislature should make. Each fall, usually close to the end of October, we start seeing the annual migration. They don’t flock here by the millions in the skies over Florida, but rather we encounter them in the aisles of Publix, on our roadways and in our favorite restaurants where wait times double.
Their plumage is generally silver on top with colorful garb across their midsections. The telltale sign of a freshly arrived member of this migratory group which resides here until about Easter or April 15, whichever is later, is the socks worn with their sandals.
They are of course, the snowbirds.
Ed Killer is TCPalm’s outdoors writer. Sign up for his and other weekly newsletters at profile.tcpalm.com/newsletters/manage. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at email@example.com.