State Bird Fight

Note: This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book My Maine Symbols (2020). The article is still being fine tuned, and the version that appears in the book could be a little different. All rights reserved.

The chickadee (aka titmouse) was adopted as Maine’s state bird in 1927. Though the legislation only specifies “chickadee,” it’s widely assumed that legislators had the black-capped chickadee in mind.

Maine bird icons
Clockwise from top left: black-capped chickadee, boreal chickadee and Atlantic puffins

Massachusetts designated the black-capped chickadee its state bird in 1941. The black-capped chickadee also represents New Brunswick, Canada, which borders Maine on the northeast.

The black-capped chickadee is as familiar to Mainers as road-killed armadillos are to Texans. Chickadees are a common sight at bird feeders, and many Mainers are familiar with their simple call—chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Inquisitive chickadees may even land on your hand, hat or even a moose hunter’s rifle barrel.

In Seattle, an army of homeless people might eat chickadees into oblivion while Bill Gates tinkers with genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil. However, the bird isn’t hunted in Maine, as far as I know.

The black-capped chickadee replaced the lobster on Maine license plates in 1999.

The nine-banded armadillo is slowly moving north, doubtless with a little help from climate change, and there are predictions it will eventually call Canada home. But one has to wonder how an armadillo could survive a Maine winter, short of cross breeding with a Maine coon cat. Then again, people began spotting another climate change fan, the opossum, in southern Maine about 10-15 years ago.

Chickadees, however, are hard core. While other birds disappear in winter, chickadees tough it out with no help from L.L. Bean.

Chickadees are not strongly dimorphic. In other words, it’s difficult to tell the males from the females. Some smart*ss joked that it resembles Mainers in this respect. Ouch!

Mainers can take a joke, but don’t mess with their state bird.

You see, Maine is also home for the boreal chickadee, which is legally recognized as the state bird alongside its black-capped cousin.

Chickadees
The black-capped chickadee has received a lot of publicity via Maine license plates, leaving the boreal chickadee in a fog.

Boreal chickadee by dfaulder, CC by 2.0Flickr (Note: I flipped the photo horizontally and erased much of the background.)

For years, the boreal chickadee was politely ignored by society in general. However, many birders and backcountry enthusiasts developed a fondness for this wilder, more elusive chickadee.

In 2018, Maine birder Nick Lund—the outreach and network manager for Maine Audubon—began campaigning for more specific legislation that would force Mainers to choose their favorite chickadee. (Lund apparently favors the boreal chickadee.)

Lund brought the issue to the attention of the local press, and soon Representative Betty Austin, a Skowhegan Democrat, was on it. Austin filed a bill asking the legislature to choose between the two birds. At the same time, she worked with fourth-graders at Margaret Chase Smith Elementary School in her hometown. Most of the students support the boreal chickadee, but a sizable faction are black-capped chickadee fans.

As this book was published, the seemingly trivial controversy had legislators and citizens scratching their heads, ruffling a few feathers in the process. Some people asked why they have to choose between chickadees. Even worse, there were fears they might be opening Pandora’s box. Would puffin fans rise in revolt?

The Atlantic Puffin ˆ

If you can imagine a penguin with the beak of a parrot or toucan, you have a pretty good idea of what a puffin looks like. In fact, the word penguin was originally applied to the largest member of the family (Alcidae), the great auk.

Great auk and Labrador duck
Great auk (left) and Labrador duck

Sadly, the flightless great auk was hunted to extinction. It was a big loss for Maine, because the great auk once lived there, though it was more common in Newfoundland and Iceland. The Labrador duck is another extinct species that once called Maine home.

Believe it or not, Maine was once home to just two Atlantic puffins.

By 1901, only a single pair was known to nest in the United States—on Matinicus Rock, a barren island twenty miles from the Maine coast. Wildlife enthusiasts paid the lighthouse keeper to protect the two birds from hunters.

But where can puffins build nests on treeless islands?

Puffins are burrowers. Their nesting islands can be compared to beehives, riddled with burrows and surrounded by birds flying to and fro, like the busiest airport you’ve ever seen.

No Puffin!
Puffins are popular anti-smoking mascots in Maine and Alaska.

Used with permission of Jason Neely — Flickr

I spent a summer working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on an island in the Gulf of Alaska that was home to two species of puffins, along with several other species of seabirds. I had to watch my step for fear of caving in puffin burrows. Puffins raise just one young at a time, by the way.

Even while being slimed by right-wingers and the corporate media, environmentalists patiently worked to help puffins recover from generations of hunting and egging. (No, people didn’t throw eggs at puffins; they ate puffin eggs.)

Much of the credit for bringing puffins back to Maine goes to Stephen Kress, who spent the summer of 1964 washing dishes at a National Audubon Society camp in Connecticut, when he was eighteen. Kress later assembled a puffin rescue crew that included Robert Noyce, who later founded Intel.

The multi-year project required extraordinary patience. (Young puffins spend a few years at sea before returning home to nest.) In quiet desperation, the puffineers employed puffin decoys, recorded calls and mirrors (to trick the puffins into thinking they weren’t alone). In the process, they pioneered techniques that would later be used to rescue a variety of seabirds around the world.

It was recently discovered that puffins, like sea otters, are tool users, using sticks to scratch themselves.
The Joker
What animal could make a better joker than a puffin?

Today, more than 4,000 puffins occur on Eastern Egg Rock in the midcoast region, Seal Island and Matinicus Rock at the mouth of Penobscot Bay, and Machias Seal Island and Petit Manan Island off the downeast coast.

During the summer, these regenerated puffin colonies attract tour boats carrying people who can watch the stout-bodied, stumpy-winged birds carrying small fish to their young. Visitors are allowed to land on Machias Seal Island, where they can view puffins from close range behind blinds.

Hard core puffin fans may want to check out the Project Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Maine (projectpuffin.audubon.org/visit-us/project-puffin-visitor-center).

If you’re among the lucky people who have seen a Maine puffin, don’t thank Bill Gates or any of the other phony philanthropists who have’t accomplished a damn thing other than stroke their megalomaniacal egos. In fact, Bill Gates and the genetically modified food he so adores are among the worst things that ever happened to the global environment.

Instead, thank Audubon and the countless dedicated environmentalists who typically get nothing from the media and its right-wing stooges but the middle-finger salute.

The State Bird Debate ˆ

As an outsider, my recommendations are likely to be ignored at best. But part of my role as a state symbols guru is to critique symbols and make recommendations. So here’s my two cents…

First, I commend anyone who scrutinizes their state symbols and tries to figure out ways to improve them. I also prefer to see legislators make species-specific designations.

However, it isn’t absolutely essential.

In fact, a number of states have designated genera or even families official symbols. For example, New York recognizes all roses (genus Rosa) as its state flower. Illinois recognizes all plants in the family Violaceae (violets) as its state flower. Some of the various states that have adopted ladybugs similarly designated genera or even families.

The ambitious residents of Delaware embraced an entire order when they crowned the stonefly a state symbol.

Regarding the feud between Maine and Massachusetts, those who say Mainers adopted the chickadee first are ignoring the fact that Massachusetts designated a specific species. Imagine if Mainers had made the chicken their state bird, then criticized Rhode Island when it later adopted the Rhode Island Red.

That said, there’s no crime in more than one state adopting the same bird. However, there’s a definite cool factor in unique designations.

With that said, I think the simplest route would be to just leave things the way they are. But there might be an even better solution…

It would be a nice touch to modify the existing legislation just a bit, designating “native chickadees” the state bird. This would be a unique designation that would call attention to the fact that more than one chickadee is native to Maine. It would be a classic example of killing two birds with one stone (pardon the pun), allowing fans of both chickadee species to declare victory.

It turns out that Senator Ned Claxton was ahead of the curve, apparently stealing my idea before I thought of it.

“My idea is to name both the boreal and the black-capped as state birds, plural. The boreal seems more unique to our identity, but the issue with the black-capped is that while you can see it in every county in Maine it will upset certain populations locally because of its affiliation with Massachusetts.”

Bingo!

But if Mainers decide that they want to recognize a specific species as state bird, then why not make sure and get it right? I’m talking about going back to square one and conducting a statewide poll. Such a contest would likely turn into a showdown between two chickadees and the Atlantic puffin. Let democracy prevail in choosing a winner.

Incidentally, Newfoundland’s official provincial bird is the puffin. It also calls the willow ptarmigan its official game bird.

In fact, several states have two state birds, the second one usually designated the game bird. (Massachusetts is one of several states that call the turkey their official game bird.) One or two have an official waterfowl, and three states (including New Hampshire) now have official raptors.

If Mainers want to promote education and tourism, they might designate native chickadees the official land bird, adding the Atlantic puffin as the official marine bird.

I think that would be a very educational gesture that ought to satisfy just about everyone.

Moxie Mascots
Its orange beak and feet make the puffin a good candidate for a Moxie mascot.

Moxie can by Scott Blackwell, CC by 2.0 (Note: I erased the background.)

Of course, you can’t satisfy everyone. Stephen King fans might prefer the vulture, and right-wingers might rally behind the fish-eating bald eagle, with liberals protesting in favor of a white dove. (The mourning dove is Wisconsin’s official symbol of peace, by the way.)

With the state bird debate well underway, legislators may make a decision even before this book is published. However, I put this chapter online in order to publicize my book and make sure all interested parties are fully informed. And if anyone criticizes me for sticking my nose in Mainers’ business, I’ll just remind them that Senator Ned Claxton thought of it first.

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