After almost a century, is Arkansas ready for a new state bird?
Two bills were proposed in the last legislative session to change the name of the state bird -- to painted bunting or mallard duck -- but neither of them got off the ground.
The mockingbird has been the Arkansas state bird since 1929, when Gov. Harvey Parnell and the 47th General Assembly adopted House Concurrent Resolution Number 22 proclaiming: "The mockingbird is declared and everywhere recognized as the state bird of the State of Arkansas," according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
But it's an odd bird, and not unique to Arkansas. The mockingbird is also the state bird of Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
"The mockingbird can sing for hours on end; unmated males sing at night," according to the Arkansas encyclopedia. "Moreover, these birds can mimic other bird species as well as dogs, sirens and even squeaky gates -- thus their scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, or 'mimic of many tongues.'"
And yes, it is against the law to kill a mockingbird.
Maybe even a sin.
"Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird," Atticus Finch told his son Jem in a book by Harper Lee.
If Arkansas is going to change its state bird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a suggestion: the Kentucky warbler.
"Despite its name, the Kentucky warbler would be a great choice for Arkansas state bird: a full 14% of the global population breeds in the state," bird experts at Cornell wrote in the spring issue of Living Bird magazine, https://bit.ly/3KZIFVJ.
But that could cause a flap.
"I'd have a better chance of getting Dumbo as the state bird," said state Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers, who proposed the mallard in the last legislative session. "I get it: theirs is a very noble and academic pursuit, and that's awesome. It's the Kentucky warbler. That's never gonna happen. That one would be dead on arrival."
State Rep. Grant Hodges didn't like the sound of it either.
"I think our friend the warbler might be disqualified with that name," said Hodges, a Republican from Centerton. "Maybe if it would consider changing its name to Arkansas warbler?"
Hodges said he wants the people of Arkansas to make the state bird decision. He proposed the painted bunting as a placeholder so his House Bill 1842 could go to interim study and give people a couple of years to think about it before the 2025 session of the Legislature.
McKenzie filed his House Bill 1849 shortly after Hodges filed his bird bill. But for McKenzie, the mallard isn't a placeholder.
"I'm an outdoor enthusiast and a lifelong duck hunter," he said. "This bird does mean a lot to our state, our economy and our culture. People have been waterfowling here for hundreds if not thousands of years for this bird that ends its migration in Arkansas."
And the mockingbird?
"I'll be as blunt as I can," said McKenzie, "I don't think the mockingbird has generated one red nickel for the state of Arkansas."
According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, duck hunting has an economic impact of about $70 million a year in Arkansas. That averages out to about $1 million each day duck season is open.
The number of mallards in the Delta region of Arkansas hit a four-year high during aerial observations conducted in early January.
"Observers estimated 929,248 mallards and more than 1.74 million total ducks on transect lines in east Arkansas," according to the commission's annual midwinter waterfowl survey.
"Arkansas is the duck hunting capital of the world," said McKenzie. "I think the case for this is not only financial or cultural. This bird has an identity, and this identity reflects Arkansas."
Hodges said he's not a bird expert or bird watcher. A birder asked him to propose the legislation and suggested the painted bunting as the placeholder.
"I think this could be a fun, lighthearted conversation that can engage our citizens and bring more interest into the symbols we've chosen to represent the Natural State," said Hodges. "I would love to see Arkansans, especially kids, discover an interest in nature and the outdoors, and maybe even learn something about the legislative process.
"If we set out to have fun and learn something, the future of our state could be as bright as a painted bunting's beautiful feathers."
Glen Hooks, policy manager for Audubon Delta, said he reached out to the legislators about the bird proposals.
He wants to get Hodges and McKenzie to do a "battle of the birds debate."
"Having a more Arkansas-centered bird would be a great thing," said Hooks. "We're all for a wild and lively debate on what the proper Arkansas bird is. I think there's a lot of good opportunity there to have some fun but also to do some bird education for the general public."
Hooks said hummingbirds are also popular in Arkansas. And tufted titmice.
The General Federation of Women's Clubs started a campaign in the 1920s to get states to designate their state birds. Now, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have official birds.
But there's a lot of repetition. Three species -- cardinals, mockingbirds and meadowlarks -- represent 18 separate states.
According to the Living Bird article, seven states share the northern cardinal, six claim the western meadowlark, and five honor the northern mockingbird.
Only 20 states have unique state birds, and there are more than 700 native bird species to choose from.
What about the ivory-billed woodpecker, which may or may not have been seen in the ancient cypress-tupelo swamp forests of east Arkansas over the past couple of decades?
Hooks said that might open a can of worms.
"I suspect we will have some people propose that and we'll have fun with it, but I can't push for that one considering that it might not be around anymore," he said.
McKenzie was blunt again.
"I think a lot of people would think we're tin-foil hat crazy if we tried to put the ivory-billed woodpecker because it's an extinct bird," he said. "I think people would take it as an un-serious pursuit."
John W. Fitzpatrick, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, said he would consider advocating for the pileated woodpecker, "which is almost as majestic" as the ivory-billed woodpecker.
It's "very common in the forested areas of Arkansas and a wonderful emblem for Arkansas wilderness," he said. "Plus, surprisingly, no other state has grabbed it yet. What a coup that would be for Arkansas!"
Fitzpatrick also likes the mallard idea.
"Mallard has a lot going for it, given the outsized importance of duck hunting as an economic driver in Arkansas," he said. "It would also be unique, if a little more boring than a huge woodpecker."
Florida also considered grounding the mockingbird. In December, a bill was filed to change the state bird from the mockingbird to the Florida scrub-jay. That bill died in the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee, according to the Florida House of Representatives website.
"I strongly favor switching from the ho-hum, occurs-everywhere northern mockingbird to the charismatic, state-endemic Florida scrub-jay," Fitzpatrick was quoted as saying in the Living Bird magazine article. "Seeing this remarkable and world-famous bird is a sublime privilege that is unique to the state."