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Debate continues over changing the Florida state bird

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Florida's legislative session kicks off in January. And while there's a gaggle of potentially controversial topics up for discussion, one that has ruffled feathers for decades is a move to change Florida's state bird. Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

REGAN MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Just outside Tallahassee at Wakulla Springs, parkgoers can spot cormorants, egrets and anhingas.

CHELSEA TURNER: If you've ever been scuba diving and had the pleasure of watching an anhinga hunt underwater, it's absolutely majestic.

MCCARTHY: Chelsea Turner, who's visiting the springs, says if it were up to her, she'd choose the anhinga as Florida's state bird. Although...

TURNER: Well, if I'm being cheeky, I would probably say the mosquito.

MCCARTHY: Karen Edwards, who lives in nearby Carrabelle, picked a popular choice.

KAREN EDWARDS: Well, we like watching the pelicans, so I would say the pelican.

MCCARTHY: But as far as state birds go, the pelican has already been claimed by Louisiana. Edwards isn't happy to learn that Florida's state bird, the mockingbird, has also been claimed by four other states.

EDWARDS: Oh, well, we should be a bit more unique here then, shouldn't we, I think.

MCCARTHY: Democratic state Senator Tina Polsky agrees. It's something she's working on.

TINA POLSKY: I know with all the craziness going on, like, this seems not important. But I have unlimited bill slots, so I have everything from, you know, gun safety to mental health to changing the state bird.

MCCARTHY: Polsky thinks Florida's official bird should be more specific to the state. While the mockingbird is found throughout the country, Polsky has a bird in mind that only lives here.

POLSKY: The Florida scrub jay is the only bird endemic to the state. It's a lot more beautiful.

MCCARTHY: Polsky has filed a bill the last few years to change Florida's bird from the mockingbird to the scrub jay, and she's got data on her side. Matt Smith is a software developer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology - that's the study of birds. He used data submitted by birders from around the country to identify which birds had unique connections with which states. For example, South Dakota...

MATT SMITH: Has the ring-necked pheasant. It's not native to North America.

MCCARTHY: Instead, Smith suggests the upland sandpiper, since 24% of its population breeds in the state. He's also suggesting a change for Arkansas, where, like Florida, the mockingbird is the state bird. Lawmakers are floating the mallard duck and painted bunting to replace it. But Smith says his pick is unlikely.

SMITH: The bird that came out of my data set for Arkansas was a bird that happens to be named after another state, which is the Kentucky warbler. So that's kind of a political no-go for obvious reasons.

MCCARTHY: In Florida, the scrub jay has also been a political no-go. As efforts to change the state bird have met a formidable foe - former National Rifle Association president Marion Hammer. Here she is speaking to a legislative committee back in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARION HAMMER: Scrub jays are lazy and scurrilous. They eat the eggs and nestlings of other birds. To me, that's robbery and murder and it's not good family values.

MCCARTHY: After her comments, lawmakers filed an amendment reaffirming the mockingbird. Hammer has fought against any changes ever since. As for her accusations against the scrub jay, Smith says, yes, scrub jays are mischievous, but they're also highly intelligent.

SMITH: They're one of our only species that practice cooperative breeding, where the young from one year will stick around and help the family raise the next brood.

MCCARTHY: Meanwhile, a new set of bills has been filed. They would name the flamingo as Florida's state bird. Neither Smith nor Hammer supports that idea.

For NPR News, I'm Regan McCarthy in Tallahassee.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL CAESAR SONG, "DO YOU LIKE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regan McCarthy
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