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Not so fast, osprey: NRA lobbyist pushes to keep the mockingbird as Florida's state bird

September 11, 2009 |  3:19 pm

Osprey The mockingbird is all over the place in American culture: called out in the lullaby "Hush Little Baby," referenced metaphorically in the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" and its subsequent film version, honored as the state bird of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida.

But in recent years, Florida has become less and less comfortable with sharing its state bird with so many nearby states, so it's embarked on a mission to oust the mockingbird and replace it with a less popular mascot.

It won't succeed, if National Rifle Assn. lobbyist Marion Hammer has anything to say about it.

Hammer, it turns out, is a devout supporter of the mockingbird, saying recently that she is "unequivocally opposed to changing the state bird."  Mockingbirds, she has noted repeatedly over the years, have a number of qualities to recommend them. They're common in Florida, staunch defenders of their nests even against larger birds and are impressive mimics.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offered schoolchildren the chance to vote on a new state bird, with close to 30,000 voting for the osprey, a fish-eating raptor whose wingspan often reaches 4 to 6 feet. The commission recommended a switch from the mockingbird to the osprey, but Hammer is fighting it tooth and nail. (One objection: The osprey is found only in coastal areas, whereas the mockingbird can be spotted all over the state.)

St. Petersburg Times correspondent Daniel Ruth scoffs at Hammer's opposition. "You would think [Hammer] would be more than in favor of replacing the state bird with the noble, formidable osprey," Ruth wrote recently. "After all, with a nearly 6-foot wingspan, it's a bigger target." Indeed, the number of potential jokes referring to Hammer's NRA affiliation is staggering, but she insists she opposes the state-bird change on her own account, not the organization's.

Still, it's hard not to see parallels between Hammer's views and the NRA's, especially when one takes into account a similar fight Hammer fought against another bird, the Florida scrub jay, back in 1999 and 2000.  The scrub jay, having the distinction of being the only bird species endemic to Florida, would seem a cracker-jack choice for official state bird. 

Not so, according to Hammer, who argued voraciously against the species on the grounds of traits she viewed as major character flaws unfitting a state mascot.  From the St. Petersburg Times:

Supporters of the scrub jay boasted about how gentle it is, how it will eat peanuts right out of a person's hand.

Hammer was unmoved.

"Begging for food isn't sweet," she testified in a committee hearing. "It's lazy and it's a welfare mentality."

Scrub jays had lots of other bad habits that disqualified them to represent Florida, she contended.

"They eat the eggs of other birds," she told lawmakers. "That's robbery and murder. I don't think scrub jays can even sing."

Pity the poor scrub jay when the NRA's "Tugboat Annie of Tallahassee" is holding a rifle.

We'd hate to imagine what Hammer would say about our own state bird, the California quail, known for its penchant to take communal dust baths with other birds (smacks of indecency), tendency to forage (if taking a peanut from a human's hand is "lazy" and "a welfare mentality," clearly eating seeds and leaves found on the ground is worse) and -- gasp -- parenting style (females sometimes lay multiple egg clutches, leaving different males to care for the young hatched from each). 

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: An osprey hovers over its offspring in a nest. Credit: Toby Talbot / Associated Press

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