Pick a pecking order: How birds and politics mix

The rufous hummingbird was recently named the American Birding Association’s 2014 Bird of the Year. How did it pull that off? Don’t recall any campaigning.

$T2eC16RHJGEFFm6!7qebBRzq,,WZdQ~~60_35We humans take care of that. Explains Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA: “We listen to member ideas, but, so far, the staff makes the call on Bird of the Year.” It’s also based on “geography, cool biology and outrageous beauty — not necessarily in that order,” pipes in Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine.

When promoting birds in general, one can’t help but show favoritism now and then. Artists and artisans do it. Ever wonder why male cardinals grace so many Christmas cards? Are they easier to paint/photograph, or just easier to spot?  (I personally prefer the females.) And what’s the deal with owls lately? It’s not just snowy owl irruptions; there has been an eruption of owl ornamentation in a range of products from home decor to personal wear over the past several years.

Some birds seem perennially and unfairly freighted with symbolism. Consider:

Top 5 symbolic birds

1. Eagle (patriotism). And it coulda been the turkey. See American history, or the Broadway musical “1776,” for the animated explanation.

2. Dove (peace). Still, those male cardinals are giving them a run for their money. What people don’t realize is cardinals are more like Angry Birds than sirens of serenity.

owlaamilne3.  Owl (wisdom). Winnie-the-Pooh’s delightful friend “Wol” is even semi-literate.

4. Turkey (Thanksgiving, sure, but also refers to “a lemon” or a lunkhead). This is probably the first bird every kid learns to draw, outlining their hands then rendering in felt, glue and construction paper.

5.  The twin pillars of the stork (birth & hope) and the raven (death & fear)

Other birds get drawn into the political fray through no fault of their own.

Top 5 political birds

On that whole national bird / state bird thing: It shows a lack of imagination when you have some birds (again with the Northern cardinal) monopolizing seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia) as an emblem. Mention the American robin to sensitive Michiganders, and they may get a little ticked: It’s their state bird even though it’s a migrant in Michigan. Whose decision was this?

Illegal immigration has always been somewhat of an issue for birds — just ask the European starling or house sparrow, or the boat-tailed grackle, which has become a target for hunters eager to “help” control populations. Here are a few other feather rufflers.


Big Bird makes a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment with Seth Meyers.

1. Big Bird – Embroiled in a 2012 controversy over federal funding of “liberal-leaning” PBS, the good Sesame Street neighbor helped to roast Mitt Romney’s presidential chances.

2. The northern spotted owl / the snowy owl – More owls! The first species was caught up in a Northwest conservation fight / the second, amid this crazy irruption into the Southern states, has been touted by some as evidence of climate change (a politically freighted term all its own).

3. The Canada geese that downed Sully’s aircraft – The risk of bird strikes has triggered miles of legislation and local skirmishes about policing bird nesting areas near airports. A sad tale close to home: the eviction of nesting eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, situated next door to Norfolk International Airport. This is where politics and symbolism intersect. (I blogged about this last year, during March Migration Madness.)

4. The stork – Embodies the idea of sex education, or lack thereof, i.e. how we don’t give our children the straight story, or even the gay story.

5. Poultry — Meaning chicken, as in “tastes like …” Does modern farming of food run afoul of animal rights? Everyone from Whole Foods to PETA has a cock in this fight.

Dear reader, do you have a “pet” wild bird or cause?


Stateliness vs. subterfuge: A slam-dunk

Bald Eagle

Not as flashy, but far more stirring than “The Colbert Report” fanfare opening. Image via Wikipedia

Today’s showdown is between the showy bald eagle and the show-off northern mockingbird. Up until now I’ve been siding with the dark horse in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness” game, but this prediction seems a safe bet.

Known for linguistic mimicry and intimidation tactics — sometimes defending its territory by attacking house pets or people Hitchcock-style — the mockingbird is a formidable foe to the bird that has been the symbol of our country since 1782. The symbolism-laden cardinal did not win Round 2 yesterday, but it seems un-American not to go through hoops for the bald eagle in Round 3.

The eagle nest at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va.

As an editor ever striving for eagle eyes, I refuse to listen to the mockingbird, ha-HA. Conniving plagiarist!

Don’t wanna prey on your patriotism, but our communal bird of prey needs your prayers. A solemn tale: In late fall of 2003, a pair of glorious eagles nested in the Norfolk (Va.) Botanical Garden; 19 eaglets have hatched and 15 have fledged since then. Their majesties became the darlings of the park, with flocks of visitors craning necks for a glimpse, and, eventually, an eagle-cam was trained 24/7 on the love nest.

On April 26, 2011, while dining on sushi at Lake Whitehurst near Norfolk International Airport, the mama eagle, nicknamed “Mom Norfolk,” was struck and killed by a landing jet, thrusting her mate and the community into gloom. The next day, three surviving eaglets were rescued and sent to the Wildlife Center of Virginia to be raised and released to the wild when mature.

Eagles, of course, mate for life and can live 40 years in the wild, even longer in captivity. Grief-stricken Mr. Eagle lingered, then surprised and delighted all by luring a new mate to his lair last fall. The birding community couldn’t forget Mom Norfolk, though, and, on Oct. 15, Eagle Tribute Plaza was dedicated in her honor.

I visited the site with my aunt Susie and sister, Patti, in early October, before its installation. Up in the garden’s observatory treehouse, we spied a crew unloading the centerpiece 8-foot-tall statue.

Spying through the brambles: Will she be standing, not flying? we wondered.

That’s the spirit! Eagle-eyed Susie reconnoiters.

Later, Susie told me, Daddy Eagle took a similar interest. During the ceremony, a hushed crowd heard his call and saw him whoosh in, alone, for a better look, bringing tears to onlookers.

The eagle statue, unveiled. (Photo by Patti Davidson-Gorbea)

A mother’s cry. (Photo by Patti Davidson-Gorbea)

Although Ben Franklin reportedly lobbied for the turkey to be our national bird (Thanksgiving and all), the bald eagle is a sacred treasure to all Americans, especially Native Americans. But recent news of the Fish and Wildlife Service giving authorization for the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming to kill two eagles in the name of religious liberty — mostly to add feathers in their caps — had to give one pause.

Birders, this goes beyond team spirit. In defense of God, country and hovering mothers everywhere: Let us prey.