Let’s be honest, most state birds in the US are boring or outright inaccurate.
The General Federation of Women’s Clubs first pitched the idea of state birds in the 1920s. Alabama jumped on the tradition right away, choosing the Northern flicker (then regionally known as the “yellowhammer”) in 1927. Arizona was the last to the party, picking the cactus wren in 1973.
But because these decisions were mainly made by politicians, state bird designations are often out of touch with the birding communities they represent. For starters, only 20 out of 50 states have a unique species, while the other 30 share a pool of just seven species. Some of those species aren’t even native to the state that claims them. Rhode Island, for instance, chose the Rhode Island red, a breed of domestic chicken originally from southern Asia.
Seeing that there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to these choices, two Cornell ornithologists recently made a playful proposal to find better state birds. Their main source of guidance? The biggest public bird database on the planet.
The mother lode of bird data
In 2002, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society launched eBird with the goal of crowdsourcing information on where birds are seen and heard across the US. In the 21 years since, the platform has exploded and gone global. With an estimated 820,000 users as of 2022 and 100 million new records per year, eBird is one of the more massive citizen science projects in the world. Birders can use Cornell’s eBird app to submit checklists of observations, photos, sound clips, and more.
eBird’s latest release, the Status and Trends toolkit, leverages that database, using machine learning to predict where bird species are throughout the year and understand how their populations have changed over time—a game-changer for people trying to conserve avian life and their habitats.
In a five-part series, Cornell researchers Matt Smith and Marc Devokaitis use the toolkit to suggest data-driven bird selections that celebrate each state’s ecology. They prioritize species whose global populations disproportionately depend on a state’s habitat to select a unique species for each place.
A new list of state birds
In total, the report matches all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 13 Canadian provinces to new birds. Some big changes include the golden-cheeked warbler for Texas, a black and white songbird with a bright yellow head, which only breeds in the juniper-oak woodlands in the central part of the state. Another highlight is the Kirtland’s warbler for Michigan, a jack pine-dweller that nearly went extinct in the 1980’s, but has since recovered in one of the most iconic conservation success stories of all time. The authors also suggest that the Rhode Island red, mentioned above, be swapped out for the saltmarsh sparrow, a sulky tawny songbird that relies on the tidal saltmarshes of Rhode Island to support its densest breeding population.
While clearly written for entertainment, the series hits on a more sincere and important point: Big data has gifted us an incredible view into ecosystems that we’ve never had before. The one-two punch of crowdsourced science and machine learning allowed the Cornell team to better understand the true makeup of birds across the country. It’s a visual map that early ornithologists could’ve only dreamed of, and the insights we can glean from it are on full display in this report.
As a Chicago-born, corn-raised Illinoisan, my home state sits in the middle of this discussion. Illinois shares its state bird, the Northern cardinal, with six other states. Frankly, it’s not hard to see why—no one questions the beauty of the crested red songbird. My parents, who aren’t birders, call me just to share updates on a pair that nests in their backyard.
But the Cornell authors have a better choice for Illinois: the indigo bunting, a strikingly blue songbird that depends on the open woodlands of Illinois to support almost 7 percent of its entire population. It isn’t a species my parents can easily identify, and it will probably never nest in their yard. To see it, they’d need to visit the parks or forest preserves around town. But maybe that should be part of why state birds exist—to get us to move beyond the familiar and explore the extraordinary biodiversity our homes have to offer.
[Related: How to start birding in any US city]
My first job out of college was at Nachusa Grasslands, a restored tallgrass prairie in the heart of the Prairie State. When I arrived at the bunkhouse I’d call home for the summer, indigo buntings lined the roadside as if to welcome me. I remember how special it felt for them to be there.
I couldn’t help but smile when I read that science agrees.