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Can eBird Help Choose Better State Birds? Part 2: Robins, Chickadees, Goldfinches, and Bluebirds

We took a dive into eBird data to find some spectacular but unsung state-bird alternatives.

A black/gray bird with a russet red breast and yellow bill stands in the wet grass.
American Robin by Joel Eckerson/Macaulay Library.

This is Part 2 of our reevaluation of state and provincial birds, a light-hearted project using eBird analyses. On the whole, the current slate of official birds includes some fine choices—some of them just seem a bit random. It got us wondering which birds have the deepest connection to their state or province, in a biogeographical sense—so we used eBird Status and Trends models to do just that. See more details about our process in Part 1.

An astounding 30 U.S. states share their bird with at least one other state. Others have chosen exotic species (such as South Dakota’s Ring-necked Pheasant), or even domestic chickens (like the Rhode Island Red).

More State Bird Suggestions

We have to ask: Couldn’t the choices be a little more inspired? So we turned to the eBird Status and Trends project to look for alternatives that highlight some of the unique connections between states and the birds that live there.

In this installment, we’re revisiting the American Robin, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, and two bluebird species. Together, these birds serve as state birds for a total of 12 states. They’re beautiful, they sing sweet songs, and they’re familiar to many people. But let’s take a moment to explore some lesser known birds that may have a stronger claim to represent each of those states.

Getting Off the Lawn: Three Alternatives for American robin

American Robins occur all the way from Alaska to Mexico. With their bright colors, cheery songs, and proclivity for feeding on lawns, it’s almost a surprise that “only” three states—Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin—claim them.

In Michigan the idea of recognizing a different state bird has gained some traction. In September 2022, state representative Greg Markkanen introduced a bill to change the state bird to Kirtland’s Warbler, an iconic bird of the Great Lakes State that nests almost exclusively in its jack pine forests. The Kirtland’s Warbler was on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, but rebounded through decades of conservation efforts and graduated off the federal Endangered Species list in 2019 (see Jack Pine Juggernauts from Living Bird, Summer 2017). “It’s a unique Michigan success story,” Markkanen told NPR News. He thinks Michiganders will get behind his bill to make Kirtland’s Warbler the new state bird, but he also admitted to getting pushback from American Robin defenders.

Connecticut and Wisconsin both have good options, too:

A yellow bird wit grayish wings with white wing bars and a small black mask sings while perching on a thorny branch.
How about Blue-winged Warbler for Connecticut? These beee-buzzzing warblers reach their highest breeding population density here. Sadly, Connecticut Warbler is not a great option, as the species neither breeds nor winters in Connecticut. Photo by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library.
A black-and-white bird with a large pale triangular bill and bright red triangle marking in its breast stands on a branch.
With its dashing good looks and sweet song, it’s surprising that Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not already a state bird. And Wisconsin has the strongest claim, with more breeding Rose-breasted Grosbeaks than any other state—12.6% of the global population. Photo by Deborah Bifulco/Macaulay Library.
A small bird with a yellow stomach and throat, gray head, black mask, white eye-ring and stripy gray and black wings stands in an evergreen tree.
Michigan is the stronghold of the formerly endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, with 98.5% of the global breeding population. Photo by Bryan Calk/Macaulay Library.
A rounded bird with a beige stomach, gray and white stripped wings and tail, black cap and chin, white sides of face, perched on a branch.
Black-capped Chickadee by Jim Merritt/Macaulay Library.

Chickadees, Warblers, or Plovers in the Northeast?

Chickadees are another popular favorite, and they’re the state bird of both Maine and Massachusetts. However, Maine still hasn’t officially settled on a single species: Since 1927 they’ve had a nonspecific “chickadee” as their state bird, while both Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees occur across large swaths of the state. In 2019, Maine state representative Betty Austin prodded the state legislature to make a decision, with legislation that read: “This bill proposes to specify the Black-capped or the Boreal Chickadee as state bird.” The effort died in committee.

Fortunately, eBird offers a solution to this political stalemate, with the following suggestions for both Maine and Massachusetts:

A bird with a black and white striped body, a yellow head with gray/green face markings, sings on a branch.
Maine is the U.S. state where you’ll find the highest breeding population density of the Black-throated Green Warbler. As a bonus, it’s a gorgeous, gold-accented bird with a buzzy, instantly recognizable song. Photo by Alicia Ambers/Macaulay Library.
A bird with a white stomach and neck, beige back and head, black stripe on neck, orange legs and bill, with a black tip on the bill.
Doesn’t it make sense for the Bay State to have a beach bird as its state bird? How about the tubby, adorable Piping Plover, with 15.6% of the global population breeding in Massachusetts (the highest of any state)? Photo by Sam Zhang/Macaulay Library.
American Goldfinch by Yves Darveau/Macaulay Library.

All That Glitters Is Not (Necessarily) a Goldfinch

American Goldfinches bring a gorgeous splash of yellow and cheerful song across North America. They live in overgrown, weedy habitats where there are plants for food—this bird is one of the strictest vegetarians in the bird world—and shrubs and trees for nesting. You’ll often spot goldfinches brightening up backyard feeders, and perhaps it’s the good cheer this little bird brings that has made it an icon of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.

We went panning for gold in the eBird data, and found these well-hidden but priceless nuggets that could serve well as goldfinch alternatives:

A mostly brown and beige streaked bird, with tones of yellow and russet, perches on a reed.
Whether hiding in the tall grass or singing one of the shortest songs imaginable, Henslow’s Sparrows are a natural fit for Iowa. The highest breeding density in the U.S. is in Iowa, and 22.4% of the global population breeds here. Photo by Matt Misewicz/Macaulay Library.
A brown/gray bird with a long, orange bill and long legs, walks on a rock.
Another skulker—and a real treat to see and hear—is the Clapper Rail. This secretive bird reaches its highest breeding density in New Jersey’s saltmarshes, where 7.6% of the global population of Clapper Rail breeds. Photo by Evan Lipton/Macaulay Library.
A black and orange bird perched on a lichen-covered branch.
With a chest the color of a sunset and a voice like an otherworldly flute, the Varied Thrush is an icon of Washington’s dark evergreen forests. They are resident all year in Washington, and 24% of the global population overwinters here. Photo by Blair Dudeck/Macaulay Library.
Eastern Bluebird by Brad Imhoff/Macaulay Library.

Could These Four States Be Happy Without their Bluebird of Happiness?

It’s hard to criticize any state’s choice of a bluebird as state bird, with their brilliant blue plumage and comforting presence in fields, fencelines, and nest boxes. Four states honor bluebirds: Idaho and Nevada claim the Mountain Bluebird; Missouri and New York have the Eastern Bluebird. At the same time, each of these states has strong connections to other, just-as-spectacular birds that are just a little bit off the radar. eBird helped us uncover them.

For instance, Idaho might not be the first state that comes to mind when thinking of hummingbirds. But the state boasts the highest proportion of Calliope Hummingbird breeding population of anyplace in the world. Idaho-based eBird reviewer Charles Swift says using that rationale to change the state’s official bird is an interesting idea, but he has other ideas: “Calliope Hummingbird is a fine choice, but I think it will be pretty hard to dislodge the Mountain Bluebird. [It’s] a pretty good state bird compared to a lot of other states.” If his state were to make a switch, Swift says: “Idaho birders might pick Cassia Crossbill since its breeding range is entirely in Idaho. … Another popular option would be the Prairie Falcon as it’s an iconic species of Idaho’s Snake River Plain.” 

A little bird facing the camera with a white underside, greenish top of head, bright pink neck feathers and long bill, perches on a little branch.
During summer, Idaho is home to more Calliope Hummingbirds than any other state—29% of the global breeding population. Plus, it’s the U.S.’s smallest hummingbird with a throat that looks like glowing purple organ pipes. What’s not to like? Photo by Marya Moosman/Macaulay Library.
Black-and-white bird with red head clinging onto a tree.
Missouri is the winter home of 18.5% of the global population of the absolutely spectacular Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Tanner Martin/Macaulay Library.
A brown and gray bird with a long tail perches on a branch.
A dapper sparrow that enlivens Nevada’s wide-open spaces, the Sagebrush Sparrow is virtually synonymous with sagebrush steppe habitat. And 41% of the global population breeds in Nevada, the highest of any state. Photo by Aidan Brubaker/Macaulay Library.
A gray bird with brown-and-white speckled underside and yellow feet, eyering, and base of sharp bill, flying with a blue sky.
New York City hosts the densest breeding population of Peregrine Falcons in the world, and peregrines have been seen in every county of the state. Photo by Simon d’Entremont/Macaulay Library.

Matt Smith is an applications programmer for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Smith conceptualized this story while playing with eBird data as a hobby. Marc Devokaitis is the associate editor of Living Bird magazine.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library