State Bird of: Alabama
Finally someone is giving some attention to another family of birds. Alabama gets what you've gotta do to really get high up in the rankings. Northern Flicker is a member of the woodpecker family, and is the only woodpecker to get such recognition. They deserve it too, being extremely cool looking in flight and easy to identify. Interestingly, Northern Flickers have major color differences in their east and west coast variations, but are still considered the be the same bird. Alabama refers to their bird by one of its many, many colloquial names: The Yellowhammer. And that's kinda where we run into the problem. I just finished gushing about this bird, and I was all ready to give it a really high spot in the countdown, but then I read that the yellowhammer name comes from the nickname for Alabaman soldiers in the civil war. Frankly, this bird would be way lower if I knew this last week. Although it's a great bird, and this associate is totally not his fault, it's way past time to pick a new symbol.
13. California Gull
State Bird of: Utah
I was all set to award this gull last place when I was looking through the state birds. The issues are obvious. Sure, you get to be the only state with a gull as a state bird, but number one, you're an inland state, not associated with gulls, and number two, most prominently, your state bird is named after another state. Then, I dug a little further and found out that the California Gull was named the state bird as an act of thanks after these gulls devoured a bunch of locusts that would've otherwise caused massive crop damage. That's a great story, and feels very Utah. In this context the bird is slightly religiously-tinged, very white, and revered for an event that may not have happened. Still, the optics are just bad enough for the bird to slide in at 14th place. It doesn't help that gulls are obnoxious.
12. Lark Bunting
State Bird of: Colorado
Credit where credit is due, Colorado introduced me to a bird I've never seen or heard of. That's kind of the problem though, isn't it? The Lark Bunting is fairly indistinct, being a small, black songbird with few defining qualities. Why is this the Colorado bird? No one can say. I do think it's got some of the Colorado spirit in that it's a real original, with no other birds in its immediate genus. It's family, however? Sparrows. Who names a sparrow their state bird? Nearly needless to say, it's not a Lark, which is a whole other family of birds.
11. Carolina Wren
State Bird of: South Carolina
The next several birds are all part of this group of fairly indistinct brown birds which all have some positive things going for them. Lacking interesting appearance or uniqueness of family to go on, we end up with the question of how to rank them. The place we end up is a really non-scientific 'how well does this bird represent his state' kind of situation. So here we are, at Carolina Wren. The essential question here is "how cool can a wren be?" I like that the bird has the state's name in it, but even that's not a bullseye since there's both a North and South Carolina. To make matters worse, this bird's Latin name means Wren of Louisiana, where it also lives. So that raises the question of why this bird is named the Carolina Wren at all. Small point deduction for me feeling like I could never identify one with certainty.
10. Brown Thrasher
State Bird of: Georgia
Do they really fight snakes? Can't find any corroborating evidence, but Audubon doesn't lie. Pay attention Florida, Arkansas, and the 4 other states that chose the Northern Mockingbird- this is how you do it if you want to choose a bird in the mockingbird family. Just find one that no one else has claimed yet. Grey Catbird was right there, guys. Personally, Brown Thrasher seems like a good Georgian bird to me. He knows over a thousand songs, the most of any bird. They're territorial and will even attack humans if necessary. Georgia has also shown some decent bird pride, naming their now-defunct pro hockey team after the Thrasher. This is the first bird that I'm honestly sad to have to put this far down. It's a good bird.
9. Hermit Thrush
State Bird of: Vermont
You might be wondering how this is the member of the thrush family that made it the furthest, defeating the Robin and two types of Bluebirds. It's just another small, brown bird, right? What you have here is a real master class in choosing the bird that best fits your state. Vermont is one of the least populous states (49th) and most densely forested, making it a natural home for hermits. His position as a Very Good Bird is largely cultural. The Hermit Thrush seems to be a bit of a muse for the artistically inclined. He's featured prominently in poems by Amy Clampett and T.S. Eliot, and none other than Walt Whitman wrote extensively of the bird. There are also no less than 3 bands named for him. Perhaps this is because the Hermit Thrush's song is considered to be one of the most pleasing in nature, it's song conforming to human musical scales when other birdsong generally doesn't.
8. Cactus Wren
State Bird of: Arizona
The state bird of Arizona made it this far by looking very cool and living in cacti. Sometimes these nests use the natural spines of the cacti to protect the birds within. Well adapted to their desert climate, they almost never drink water, getting hydrated instead from moisture in their food. Bonus points for being only found in the Southwest. An excellent and distinctive bird choice. Significant multiplier for being a state bird that naturally nests in the state flower, the Saguaro cactus.
7. Purple Finch
State Bird of: New Hampshire
The Peterson guide goes a long way towards selling me on the Purple Finch, describing him as "a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice". The coloration is pretty distinctive, especially among North American birds. Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. The Purple Finch is kind of a perennial loser, currently losing his territory to both the House Sparrow and House Finch, which, insultingly, kind of looks like a more boring version of him. This might incline some to give him a low place on the list, but to me, at this moment, it feels like we need an underdog. The Purple Finch says 'live free or die', even if he is currently doing more dying than living free these days. It helps his case that he's got a very narrow range of places that he might be found year round, which does include New Hampshire.
6. Baltimore Oriole
State Bird of: Maryland
What can I say, you can go a long way by having your bird be so interwoven into the fabric of your state. The bird was actually given its name for its resemblance to the family crest of Maryland's first governor, Lord Baltimore, who also gave his name to the state's capital. That's what I call state bird synergy. There's also the matter of the baseball team of the same name. Orioles are also delightful birds, always a pleasant surprise of color and movement. However, there's only so high that you can go as a little songbird. The top 5 is filled with real doozies.
5. Brown Pelican
State Bird of: Louisiana
Boom! Why did no one else think to claim this giant, idiosyncratic icon? Even the biggest bird novice knows what a pelican looks like, and for good reason. They're completely absurd looking. This is the kinda move that makes you realize the quality birds that were left on the shelf during this whole state-bird-naming affair. Brown Pelican represents Louisiana well with his scrappy, do-what-it-takes spirit, and his love of seafood. And the bird has been embraced by Louisiana, earning a coveted basketball team name. Excellent work, Louisiana. The only reason this bird is not higher is that it's quite common in just about any state with a coastline.
4. California Quail
State Bird of: California
Am I showing a little bit of home state bias by giving this quail the 4th place spot? I would argue no, I am not. California's quail 1) is the only quail to be given state bird status, 2) lives exclusively on the west coast, and 3) has the state name in his name. The only shade you could possibly throw this quail's way is that California is also home to the incredibly rare California Condor, the largest bird in the country, and how come he's not the state bird. Still, you would never want to hurt this bird's feelings by saying something like that. Just look at him! Much like California, he's on the leading edge of fashion with his hairstyle and outfit. He's even got the state's distinctive positive energy. Even cuter in person, the California Quail is a welcome, and not infrequent sighting all along the beautiful California coast. I love this quail and I love California.
State Bird of: Hawai'i
I almost feel like it's not fair for Alaska and Hawai'i to compete with the rest of the 50 states, just because they have such distinct and rich bird habitats compared to much of the mainland. Well, no one said this bird context had to be fair, but I think we can agree that most states could've done better. That being said, they didn't take the top spot. Now, on to our top 3. The Nene is the world's rarest goose, with wild numbers hovering around 2500, and it is only found naturally in Hawai'i. In fact, it's the only state bird that can only be found in its home state. It is also the rarest state bird. It even has an extinct relative, the Nene-nui, which was just like it except 4 times the size (!!!). Ancient, exotic, and endangered it epitomizes Hawai'i's natural beauty well. But are there other options in Hawai'i's embarrassment of bird riches which would've been just as good? Maybe, maybe not. The only thing about the Nene that holds it back is that at the end of the day it is a goose, which is not, like, the best type of bird.
2. Willow Ptarmigan
State Bird of: Alaska
This bird is bananas. If you haven't seen it and heard its amazing call, do yourself a favor and go watch this video now. While the Ptarmigan has a large range, Alaska is the only part of the US that it's found in, which is worth good points. Honestly though, it doesn't need em' simply on he strength of the bird alone. Uniquely adapted to their icy habitats, they have furry feathers on their feet and they grow white plumage for camouflage in the winter. This hearty winter warrior exemplifies the frontier spirit and esoteric nature of his represented state.
1. Greater Roadrunner
State Bird of: New Mexico
God what a cool bird. There's a part of me that wonders if my thus far unfulfilled desire to see this bird in the wild has anything to do with me giving him the top spot, but then I look at him again and any doubt fades away quickly. Not as quickly, however, as the roadrunner himself, who can get up to a whopping 24 miles per hour on foot, the fastest running speed for a flighted bird. He's the perfect bird for New Mexico too, a stark landscape characterized by cacti, highways, and wide open desert. Fittingly, he looks like a bird from another world or era. What really cements them as top bird on the power ranking is their cultural influence. Native Americans in the area believed Roadrunners warded away evil spirits, while indigenous peoples in Mexico thought of them as baby deliverers, ala. Stork in Europe. Also my actual favorite Loony Tune when I was a kid was the Roadrunner, who wordlessly outsmarted and outran his nemesis, the Coyote. In real life, I'm told, Roadrunners are one of the few things Coyotes won't eat. Congrats Roadrunner, maybe now that I've given you the trophy you'll finally show up for me. Like the coyote, I probably shouldn't count on it.
So, what did you think of my bird rankings? Was I too harsh on the birds that multiple states shared? Should chickens be allowed on the list? Should Alabama do something about their racist bird? What is your top state bird? Sound off in the comments, or on twitter! Thanks for reading birdfans.