Tuesday, September 29, 2009
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Mockingbird
Students pick osprey for Florida's new state bird
By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
For 72 years, Florida's state bird has been the feisty mockingbird, a gray-feathered mimic that is as likely to show up in a suburban back yard or a downtown park as in a forest or a swamp.
But the mockingbird is also the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. So the state wildlife commission asked schoolchildren to pick a new state bird. More than 20,000 voted for the osprey, a raptor sometimes called the fish hawk.
The osprey "represents the thousands of miles of river ways, lake shores and coastlines that make Florida distinctive in the United States and where this regal bird makes its home," the staff of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote in a memo last month.
However, past attempts at persuading the Legislature to change the state bird have failed. They were shot down by one very powerful, very determined lobbyist: Marion Hammer of the National Rifle Association. And as far as she's concerned, this osprey idea just won't fly.
"I remain unequivocally opposed to changing the state bird," Hammer said last week.
Hammer made it clear that she's not taking this stance because the NRA has a policy on which species of bird best represents the Sunshine State. She just loves mockingbirds.
She also likes the fact that mockingbirds are willing to fight other birds, even larger ones, that might threaten their nests.
"They are very protective of their family and of their territory," she said.
In 1999, more than 10,000 schoolchildren signed a petition to change the state bird to something far rarer than the mockingbird: the Florida scrub jay. Supporters of the scrub jay boasted about how gentle it is, how it will eat peanuts right out of a person's hand.
Hammer was unmoved.
"Begging for food isn't sweet," she testified in a committee hearing. "It's lazy and it's a welfare mentality."
Scrub jays had lots of other bad habits that disqualified them to represent Florida, she contended.
"They eat the eggs of other birds," she told lawmakers. "That's robbery and murder. I don't think scrub jays can even sing."
As for the 10,000 kids who signed the petition, Hammer said, "Did the other 2.5 million schoolchildren refuse to sign the petition because they wanted to keep the mockingbird?"
Last Nov. 4, on the same day the adults were picking a new president, 78,000 children cast ballots for a new state bird. The osprey won with 28,229 votes, according to Judy Gillian of the wildlife commission. The next step would be getting a bill passed by the Legislature.
Hammer remains unconvinced that there's any need to change birds. Ever since it was chosen in 1927, she said, "the mockingbird has served us well. You shouldn't kick it to the curb just because it's old."