Skip to main content

Can eBird Help Choose Better State Birds? Part 4: Native Species and a Few Surprises

California loves its California Quail; South Carolina treasures the Carolina Wren. But that doesn't mean every bird with a state in its name has to be the state bird. Here's a list of alternatives.

Fully 100% of all Yellow-billed Magpies live in California, making it a good candidate for California’s state bird. Photo by Gail West/Macaulay Library.

This is Part 4 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.

It would be mighty tough for states to break up with their namesake birds—California Quail, Hawaiian Goose, Baltimore Oriole, Carolina Wren, we hear you.

But as emblematic as those birds are, a look at eBird Status and Trends data uncovers some other reasons for celebrating birds, such as endemism (the Yellow-billed Magpie is found in California and nowhere else—surely that’s a good reason for its candidacy?). Or global significance: Maryland has only 1% of the world’s Baltimore Orioles (its current state bird), whereas it hosts one of the highest breeding concentrations of Seaside Sparrows in the world. 

And then there’s Utah, which honors a bird named for a different state entirely, the California Gull. According to lore, in 1848 the Mormon settlers’ crops were threatened by swarms of Mormon crickets (a type of katydid). Just in time, a flock of California Gulls swooped in to feast on the pests, saving the crops. The salty lakes of Utah do indeed host an extremely high concentration of breeding California Gulls. Even so, the Wilson’s Phalarope puts on an even more impressive show, with more than two-thirds of the global population breeding in Utah.

Black and white bird with iridescent blue-green on long tail and wings, yellow big bill with yellow around eyes.
The California Quail is a delightful bird that occurs up and down the Pacific Coast. The Yellow-billed Magpie, on the other hand, is endemic to California, with 100% of the global population living in California year-round. Photo by Chris Rohrer/Macaulay Library.
Bright red bird with thin, longish, hooked, black bill, black on wings and tail, perches on a bush.
The Hawaiian Goose (Nene) is a great state bird. But from a biogeographic point of view, the Apapane is an even better option: It occurs on all major Hawaiian islands, and belongs to a taxonomic group that is endemic to Hawaii. Photo by Ryan Sanderson/Macaulay Library.
Brown and white streaky bird with yellow patch just behind bill and around top of eye with orangish tint on chest, perches on two reeds.
The brilliant Baltimore Oriole is a longtime favorite in Maryland and beyond—but only 1% of the global population breeds in the state. The Seaside Sparrow, a saltmarsh specialist, has 13.3% of its global breeding population in Maryland, the second highest of any state. Photo by Keenan Yakola/Macaulay Library.
Gray (back), brown (head and neck and wings), and white (throat and underside) bird, with black/gray longish bill, upside down on tree bark.
Instead of South Carolina’s eponymous Carolina Wren, eBird suggests the cute little Brown-headed Nuthatch, with 12.7% of the global population living year-round in the state. South Carolina also has the second-highest population density of Brown-headed Nuthatches. Photo by Matthew Plante/Macaulay Library.
Large bodied bird with long, thin neck, brown back, white underside and throat, reddish neck, gray head with white eyebrow, long, black, thin, bill, stands in the water.
California Gulls breed en masse in Utah, and once may have saved early settlers from a crop failure. Even so, Wilson’s Phalarope has fully 68% of its global population breeding in the Beehive State. Photo by Blair Dudeck/Macaulay Library.

Should State Birds Be Native to Their State?

Three states currently honor birds that are either domesticated or introduced to this continent. They each have their good points, but from a biogeographic point of view they’re basically non-starters. Turning to eBird, we looked for replacements that are native species with a strong tie to their state. Might these states consider declaring a native bird alongside their sentimental favorites? 

Bird with mix of browns, russet (neck, chest, some of face), and cream (underside), long, black bill, longish legs, walks in wet sand.
The Delaware Blue Hen is a prized chicken, but couldn’t the state also recognize the magnificent, long-distance-migrant Red Knot? During spring migration there are more Red Knots packed along the shores of Delaware Bay than any other state at any time of year. Photo by Matthew Plante/Macaulay Library.
Small bird with orange, brown and gray striped face and breast, white abdomen, looks like brownish back (but turned toward camera) pink/gray conical bill, stands in seaweed.
Another chicken, the Rhode Island Red, might give up its place for the embattled Saltmarsh Sparrow; it reaches its highest breeding population density here. Photo by Evan Lipton/Macaulay Library.
White, brown and gray patterned bird, with light gray abdomen and throat, long, yellow bill, long neck, long, yellow legs, stands on wood post.
The Ring-necked Pheasant is a Eurasian species introduced widely across North America as a game bird. As an alternative, eBird suggests the distinctive Upland Sandpiper, with 24% of its global population breeding in South Dakota. Photo by Bradley Hacker/Macaulay Library.

Two States Keep Their State Birds 

We’ve made it through 48 states (plus the District of Columbia), and the last two states are, happily, ones that everyone can agree on. When Louisiana and Oklahoma chose their state birds, they happened to settle on species with rock-solid claims in the eBird data; birds with higher proportions or densities of global populations than other candidate bird species. 

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was chosen as Oklahoma’s official bird by the state legislature in 1951. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the scissortail won out because of “its diet of harmful insects” and “the fortunate circumstance that no other state had designated it.” It doesn’t hurt that 13.5% of the global population breeds in Oklahoma—not to mention that fanciful, elegant tail and outrageous salmon-pink highlights.

Gray and black-backed bird, white neck, yellowish head, and giant, long, pink (top) and brown bill, flies over water (while pooping!).
eBird data is 100% on board with Louisiana keeping the Brown Pelican—37% of the global population breeds in the state. Photo by Bridget Spencer/Macaulay Library.
Pretty bird with white underside, orange sides, light gray head, super long tail with brown and beige wings and tail, perches on barbed wire.
The glorious and graceful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has so many reasons why it’s a great choice for Oklahoma state bird, including that the state holds 13.5% of the global breeding population, the second highest of any state. Photo by Marky Mutchler/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.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you

American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library