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Move Over, Mockingbird?

Texas has several feathered friends worthy of state bird status.

By Russell Roe

May 2024 Issue

Mockingbird

Texas was the first state to choose a state bird when it approved the mockingbird as the official avian mascot in 1927. Since then, four other states have, in true mockingbird fashion, copied what we're doing, naming the mockingbird as their state bird.

Do they also want Texas, Our Texas?

Originally a bird of the South, the mockingbird claims state bird status in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida as well as Texas. But maybe not for long — in Florida, lawmakers are considering bills to their change their state bird to either the Florida scrub jay or the flamingo.

The mockingbird does have much to recommend it. The Texas Legislature deemed the mockingbird to be “the most appropriate species for the state bird of Texas” as it “is found in all parts of the state, in winter and in summer, in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the woods and hills, and is a singer of distinctive type,” going on to state that it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan.”

Noted birdman John James Audubon was a fan, declaring it “the king of song.”

It is, indeed, well known for its powers of mimicry. One has to wonder if other birds ever say, in their own way, “Quit copying me!” The mockingbird's scientific name means “many-tongued mimic.” The mockingbird's highly variable song can contain sounds of numerous other birds — wrens, jays, cardinals and bluebirds — along with noises such as whistles and sirens. Its songs are voluminous and diverse. It has its own song, too — it does originals as well as covers.

Mockingbirds are capable defenders of their territory — they can be observed attacking much-bigger hawks and swooping down on cats and squirrels (which probably deserve it).

It's a perfectly likeable bird, if a bit drab. But is such a common bird worthy of state bird status in a state that prides itself on exceptionalism? Can we find a more iconically Texan bird to represent us?

In 1956, the Texas Ornithological Society selected the scissor-tailed flycatcher, a striking and beautiful creature, as its official bird.

For a more scientific determination of state birds, science writer Sam Allon used iNaturalist data to help select appropriate birds. He suggested giving the title not to a state's most-observed bird (in Texas that's the northern cardinal) but to the bird with a higher observation frequency in that state than in any other state. Using that analysis, Texas' bird should be the black-crested titmouse. Sorry, Sam, I don't think that's gonna fly.

In 2023, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology turned to eBird data — the eBird Status and Trends Project — to find unique, scientifically grounded connections between states and the birds that live there. Based on computer models and hundreds of millions of citizen science records, it estimated how much of a bird species' global population occurs in each state at a given time of year. This data helped pinpoint a well-suited bird for each state or province by showing which regions host globally significant populations of certain species. The winner for Texas? The golden-cheeked warbler. “It's hard to argue with golden-cheeked warbler's claim on Texas — fully 100 percent of the global population breeds there,” the Cornell Lab states.

Is it time to (metaphorically) kill the mockingbird?

We reached out to some of the state's top birders to find out.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Victor Emanuel: The cutting edge choice

“My candidate would be the scissor-tailed flycatcher. I know it is the Oklahoma state bird, but more of them breed in Texas than anywhere in the world. It is a spectacular bird and is one of the birds that birders want very much to see when they come to Texas.”
-Emanuel has been birding for 74 years and is the founder of Victor Emanuel Nature Tour

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

Danielle Belleny: Grillmaster

“Unlike most songbirds that have diets of fruits, bugs and seeds, the loggerhead shrike has a unique appetite for barbecued meat. Shrikes are formidable predators that can hunt lizards, small rodents and other birds. Their meals can be found skewered to barbed-wire fences and sharp twigs for the shrikes to eat weeks later. Who knew that there is a grillmaster of the bird world? Texans can definitely relate to a bird with such a natural affinity to cooking low and slow. Found throughout Texas for most of the year, this small bird is gray overall with a black mask, wings and tail. At a quick glance, shrikes look similar to mockingbirds … but closer inspection proves they are actually much cooler than the current state bird.”
-Belleny is a wildlife biologist, co-founder of Black Birders Week and author of This Is a Book for People Who Love Birds.

Painted Bunting

Painted Bunting

Chuck Sexton: Rainbow connection

“I'll suggest the painted bunting as the new state bird of Texas. It is a beautiful species, and it occurs essentially statewide. The species is both colorful and songful — qualities I admire in nature and humankind. Their arrival in spring signals the onset of rejuvenation in the landscape after a bleak Texas winter. Not uncommonly, they have served as a ‘gateway species’ for many an incipient birder in the Lone Star State, sparking a lifelong interest in birds and the natural world.”
-Sexton is a retired wildlife biologist who has birded in literally every corner of Texas. He has served on both the Texas Bird Records Committee and the American Birding Association's Checklist Committee.

Golden Cheeked Warbler

Golden Cheeked Warbler

Romey Swanson: Native Texan bird

“Every golden-cheeked warbler is a native-hatched Texan — an easy point of pride for Texans. This species requires a unique woodland habitat found exclusively within Central Texas, habitat that wouldn't be here if not for the care and stewardship afforded it by Texans. The golden-cheeked warbler is charming and lively. They can be fiercely territorial while reigning over haunts that support an abundance of sensitive species — all shared characteristics with many of our wonderful Texas landowners. Texans agree that the hills and woods of the Lone Star State are made better by the buzzy trill of the warbler's springtime song.”
Swanson is director of the Devils River Conservancy and former director of conservation for Audubon Texas.

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Bill Sain: Roadrunner in the running

“Very easy answer — the greater roadrunner! They are the perfect representation of the Texas persona. They strut around proudly and don't really care what others think of them. They take on rattlesnakes and other animals bigger and more dangerous than them. While they can be found in 12 different states, Texas is the only one in which the roadrunner can be found anywhere in the state. New Mexico has already claimed the roadrunner as a state bird, but, as pointed out above, there are parts of New Mexico where the roadrunner does not live. Besides, sharing a bird with one state is better than sharing the mockingbird with four others.”
-Sain has been birding for 30 years and leads field trips at numerous birding festivals in Texas.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

Roy Rodriguez: Warble and whoop

“I have been torn between two top choices as new candidates for state bird. 1) The golden-cheeked warbler is a true Texas specialty. This small and striking endemic songbird breeds throughout the Edwards Plateau of Texas, migrating into the tropics in the fall. Although the golden-cheek's population is small, this warbler is an example of the varied natural treasures found only in Texas. 2) A tall, stately and elegant bird, the endangered whooping crane spends its winters near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Texas Gulf Coast. Back from the brink of extinction, this annual winter Texan is both a symbol of the fragility of our wildlife populations and a positive example of how human intervention can encourage and support the animals that share our state and our world. The iconic whooping crane is one more example of the varied natural treasures found only in Texas.”
-Rodriguez is lead interpreter at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center in Mission.

Tania Homayoun: Citizen crane

“I submit for consideration as our next state bird the whooping crane. One of only two native crane species found in the United States, this endangered bird once numbered only 21 individuals. Today, around 540 birds winter on the Texas coast. Their ongoing recovery features tenacity, creativity and grit — all traits Texans pride themselves on. And the whooping crane fits easily into the ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ credo — it is our tallest North American bird, standing around five feet, and our Texas whoopers travel roughly 2,500 miles each year to reach their northern Canadian breeding grounds.”
-Homayoun is the state ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Crested Caracara

Crested Caracara

Hesper Fang: Respect the raptor

“No shade against the humble yet belligerent northern mockingbird, but it's time to let her retire in dignity and allow the next Texas state bird to claim its throne: the crested caracara. Standing 20 inches tall, this strikingly colorful raptor is the second largest falcon in the world. As a year-round resident species, caracaras are true Texans, not ‘snowbirds’ who only visit when it's convenient. Tough, intelligent, resourceful, adaptable, bold, the caracara embodies Texans' proud independent spirit and tenacity. Nicknamed the ‘Mexican eagle,’ it even honors our unique state history. At home in the wide-open ranchlands and prairies that define much of Texas, the crested caracara highlights our state's rich biodiversity and iconic landscapes, making it the perfect new avian ambassador for our state.”
-Fang is a young adult falconer and member of Travis Audubon.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Lisa Gonzalez: Back the grack

“When Audubon Texas staff came together, we found it impossible to decide on one species. This conversation creates a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness about the joy and value that birds bring to our lives. Here are a few species suggestions from the Audubon Texas staff (none are claimed by other states):

  • Painted bunting: Its beauty is accessible to Texans across the state.
  • Golden-cheeked warbler: Native Texan that inspires conservation action.
  • Crested caracara: Represents the vibrant fabric of cultures across Texas.
  • Great-tailed grackle: Gregarious, smart, territorial and opportunistic with a pioneering spirit. #GrackPack4Life”

-Lisa Gonzalez is executive director of Audubon Texas.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Cliff Shackelford: If it ain't broke ...

“Texans often holler, ‘Why change what ain't broke?’ If the goal is to change state birds so each state has a unique species, then there's only one species that breeds nowhere else on the planet except Texas: the golden-cheeked warbler. That warbler, however, has a very limited range, breeding in 13 percent of Texas counties. I prefer to have a state bird that every Texan can enjoy, so I vote to keep the northern mockingbird — it has 100 percent coverage among Texas counties! I'm fine with sharing this as the state bird with other states just like I'm fine sharing interstates, currency and BBQ with them!”
-Shackelford is the former ornithologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Jennifer Bristol: Don't kill the mockingbird

“When it comes to the discussion about changing the state bird of Texas, I was, for a moment, leaning toward changing my allegiance to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. However, after review I am squarely back on team mockingbird. It is true that every golden-cheeked warbler is born in the cedar brakes of the Edwards Plateau. But therein lies the issue for me — the warblers have a limited breeding range and are not year-round residents in Texas. Northern mockingbirds, on the other hand, can be found year-round, singing their songs across the state — making them the Willie Nelsons of the avian world.”
-Bristol is author of Cemetery Birding and Parking Lot Birding and two-time Most Valuable Birder of the Great Texas Birding Classic

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