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Can eBird Help Choose Better State Birds? Part 3: Birds That Mostly Don’t Live in Their State

From eiders in Alaska to warblers in Alabama, some birds have a rock-solid connection to the place they live. Surely they'd make great state birds.

eBird data suggests Pennsylvania should be represented by the colorful Scarlet Tanager. Photo by Ryan Sanderson/Macaulay Library.

This is Part 3 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.

More State Bird Suggestions

In this installment, we take a look at 11 states with birds that, delightful as they are, don’t have a strong connection with their state. Admittedly, many states have chosen official birds that hold special meaning for their citizens. The Ruffed Grouse is no doubt the favorite game bird of Pennsylvanians, and the haunting yodel of a Common Loon stirs the hearts of Minnesotans. But neither state is a stronghold for those species. Pennsylvania has only 0.7% of the world’s Ruffed Grouse; and only 2% of the global Common Loon population breeds in Minnesota.

Approaching the question from an eBird-data perspective, some clear alternatives emerged. Pennsylvania supports the most breeding Scarlet Tanagers of any state, and Minnesota is home to almost half of the global breeding population of Golden-winged Warblers. 

For a state as big as Alaska, this data-driven approach produced strong cases for several species. (The current state bird, Willow Ptarmigan, also occurs broadly over most of Canada.) The dainty, endemic McKay’s Bunting and the marathon-migrant Bristle-thighed Curlew would make great state birds. In the end though, the data led us to Spectacled Eider, a spectacular and enigmatic duck which in North America breeds only in the coastal tundra of northern and western Alaska, and spends its winters dodging sea ice in the frigid Bering Sea.

Not everyone is convinced. Nate Senner, an ecology professor at UMass Amherst and eBird reviewer for Alaska, says that while Spectacled Eider is a cool bird, he thinks Alaska should stick with Willow Ptarmigan, even if it’s a bird with only a small proportion of its global population in the state. “For most people to see a Spectacled Eider, they need to go to Utqiagvik or Nome,” says Senner, who grew up in Alaska. “I don’t think that most people would feel a connection with Spectacled Eiders, whereas Willow Ptarmigan you can see from Anchorage or Fairbanks or most other places quite easily.”

Here’s how the full set of 11 states shake out:

Brownish-yellow bird with a brown eye-stripe and longish, pointy bill, perched on a lichen covered branch.
The secretive Swainson’s Warbler haunts many an Alabama swamp. In fact, 20% of the global population breeds here, making it a good candidate to replace the much more widespread “Yellowhammer” (Northern Flicker). Photo by Dorian Anderson/Macaulay Library.
Black and white duck in the water with unusual looking head--orange bill, large white circle over the eye, brownish patch in front of eye, greenish back of head and upper neck.
The beautiful and hardy Spectacled Eider breeds only in Alaska and eastern Siberia. And it winters mostly in Alaskan waters of the Bering Sea, making it the data-driven favorite to replace the broadly distributed Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by James Eaton/Macaulay Library.
Reddish-brown bird with reddish eye, small, conical gray-pink bill, stands on the ground.
Arizona’s current state bird, Cactus Wren, has a lot of personality, but it occurs widely in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Abert’s Towhee, on the other hand, has 79.5% of its global population restricted to Arizona. Abert’s Towhee by Jason Vassallo/Macaulay Library.
Bird perched on a branch with a dark brown cap, brown body, brown and white tail, pink abdomen and pink in wings and tail.
Colorado is a land of rolling plains and jagged peaks. Its current state bird, Lark Bunting, honors the plains; but the intrepid Brown-capped Rosy Finch (pictured) lives at and above snowline in the mountains—and 99.9% of the global population breeds in Colorado. Photo by Jason Vassallo/Macaulay Library.
Black bird with big slightly hooked bill and feathers on part of top of bill, walks on the ground.
Washington, D.C. currently honors the Wood Thrush—but Ohio has a much better claim for this species. On the other hand, nowhere in the U.S. are Fish Crows so numerous in terms of breeding population density. Fish Crow by Ian Davies/Macaulay Library.
Reddish-brown and gray little bird with small, conical bill, streaky wings, gray stomach, brownish eye stripe, touches of yellow, perched on a log.
The unassuming, sweet-voiced Bachman’s Sparrow is emblematic of the fire-maintained pine flatwoods of the southern coastal plain. Georgia is home to 28% of the year-round global population, making it a strong candidate to replace the widespread Brown Thrasher. Bachman’s Sparrow by Howard West/Macaulay Library.
Gray body with black throat and eye area, yellow cap, yellow patch on wing, pointy, smallish bill, perched on a branch.
Minnesota’s current state bird is the Common Loon, beloved for its haunting call in this land of 10,000 lakes. But only 2% of the global population breeds here—whereas Minnesota holds 47.6% of the global breeding population of the equally stunning Golden-winged Warbler. Photo by Linda Petersen/Macaulay Library.
Brown bird with white, slightly speckled underside, thin, longish yellow-orange bill, open and singing. Long yellow-pink legs. Standing on a lichen covered branch.
Scattered across the tops of New Hampshire’s White Mountains lies the tangled breeding habitat of Bicknell’s Thrush—comprising 10.2% of this elusive species’ breeding range. While not as colorful as New Hampshire’s current state bird, the Purple Finch, Bicknell’s Thrush has a strong claim. Bicknell’s Thrush by Ian Davies/Macaulay Library.
Black bird with large slightly hooked bill stands on a dry, muddy cracked ground.
New Mexico’s current state bird, the Greater Roadrunner, has looks and attitude to burn—but it also has a range stretching from California to Missouri to Mexico City. By contrast, nearly 1 out of every 3 Chihuahuan Ravens in the world lives in New Mexico year-round. Chihuahuan Raven by Christopher Lindsey/Macaulay Library.
Bright red bird with black wings and conical, yellowish bill, perches on a branch.
With mind-blowingly bright colors and 11.6% of the global population breeding in Pennsylvania (more than any other state), the Scarlet Tanager is a natural fit to replace Ruffed Grouse as the state bird. Photo by Ryan Sanderson/Macaulay Library.
BLue-backed little bird with a black face and white belly, perches on a branch.
The beautiful voice of the Hermit Thrush, Vermont’s current state bird, rings out across the very same mountain slopes where the Black-throated Blue Warbler nests—reaching its highest population density in Vermont. By contrast the Hermit Thrush’s population is spread much more widely across North America. Black-throated Blue Warbler by Brad Imhoff/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

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