The Osprey or Western Meadowlark for State Bird? You Decide.

In early April, a bill to replace the western meadowlark with the osprey as the state bird of Oregon flew (soared?) through the Oregon Senate. The House will take up the bill in May, so time’s running out for you to have your say on whether the change should be made.

Now, I know that people’s first response to a symbolic action like this one is often: Don’t our elected leaders have anything better to do?

Yes, of course they do. Yes, yes, yes.

And yet, it cannot be denied that symbols sometimes matter and can lead to positive change. Note, for instance, that decades ago conservationists and the wider public rose up in a magnificent movement to save the bald eagle—our national bird and national animal. Surely that crusade, and the funding it received, was aided by the bird’s symbolic status.

 Bald eagle. Photo by John Williams

Bald eagle. Photo by John Williams

In fact, had Ben Franklin successfully convinced us to put the wild turkey on America’s Great Seal, I wonder whether the bald eagle would have been as fortunate. Maybe instead another species would have become the poster child for the damage done by DDT poisoning.

 Wild turkey. Photo by Alan Schmierer

Wild turkey. Photo by Alan Schmierer

(By the way, Franklin was likely joking about wanting the wild turkey to be our national symbol. He suggested that in an oft-quoted letter to his daughter, where he may have been after a laugh. The animal he proposed in a more serious letter to the Pennsylvania Journal was the rattlesnake.)

So, let’s run with the idea that the symbolism of being Oregon’s state bird matters, at least a little bit. And let’s do what it appears our elected leaders have not done and take a closer look at the two species involved—pushing beyond the “gentle avian friend” vs. “instinctual killer who visits death on fish from above” nonsense. (Both quotes are from Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.)

Here are some comparisons between the osprey and the western meadowlark that might (or might not) help you decide.

Which Bird Spends More Time in Oregon?

It seems like our state bird should spend most or all of the year in Oregon. In Central Oregon, many western meadowlarks are year-round residents. Osprey arrive in early April, typically returning to the same nest they left the year before, and they stay until mid-October.

Advantage: Some western meadowlarks are year-round residents, so they spend more time in-state.

 Western meadowlark. Photo by Alison Hardenburgh

Western meadowlark. Photo by Alison Hardenburgh

Which Bird Is Claimed by the Most Other States?

I think this is the strongest argument in favor of adopting the osprey as our state bird. Five other states, including Montana and Wyoming, have chosen the western meadowlark as their state bird, while the osprey would be ours alone.

Note, however, that our beloved state animal, the beaver, is also the state animal of New York, and I don’t hear any complaints about that.

In addition, the osprey is found up and down the coasts of every continent but Antarctica, while the western meadowlark’s range is limited to the western side of North America, so you could argue that it is the better symbol for a western state.

Advantage: The osprey would be a unique state bird.

 Osprey. Photo by Sue Dougherty

Osprey. Photo by Sue Dougherty

Which Bird Is Most Common?

This one’s interesting. I don’t know how many individuals of each species are in Oregon, but what is clear is that osprey populations are increasing across North America. Their populations were once dangerously low due to the same pesticide poisoning that was harming bald eagles, so the effort to restore the eagle also helped the osprey.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-NW Portland/Beaverton, says of the osprey (apparently joining her own identity with the bird’s), “We are ubiquitous across our state. You can find an osprey nesting along any body of water in this entire state whether it’s urban or rural.”

But hang on here: The reason you can’t find many western meadowlarks on the west side of the Cascades is because their populations are in decline. In fact, there are now half as many meadowlarks nationwide as in 1966. That’s because of pesticide use, invasive plants, fire suppression, and the loss of the open grasslands, prairies, and meadows that meadowlarks depend on.

That’s some cruel circular reasoning to criticize a species in decline for not being more abundant! It would seem far wiser to focus on how to restore the meadowlark’s habitat—which is where being the symbol of the state could really help.

Advantage: The osprey is more common, but the western meadowlark is more in need of protection.

 Western meadowlark. Photo by Kris Kristovich

Western meadowlark. Photo by Kris Kristovich

Which Bird Would Win a Cage Match?

Get it: a cage match! That’s some silly wordplay befitting an absurd comparison. Some of our legislators are praising the osprey for being a fierce and aggressive bird of prey—a far tougher hombre, in other words, than the robin-sized meadowlark.

Of course, bald eagles often steal fish from osprey, so if you’re really looking for the biggest, baddest kid on the block, you’d have to go with the baldy. Or, then again, the golden eagle is even larger and more powerful than the bald eagle, so … yeah, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Criticizing the meadowlark for not being as fierce as an osprey is akin to criticizing a fox for not being as big and strong as a wolf. They’re different species that do different things, filling different but equally important roles in the ecosystem.

Advantage: The osprey, if you must compare the strength of a songbird to that of a raptor.

 Osprey. Photo by Charles Gates

Osprey. Photo by Charles Gates

Which Bird Is Prettier?

I know, I know, this is another silly question, but our politicians seem to be considering general attractiveness as a factor in choosing the state bird, so we’d better address it.

The osprey is a beautiful bird, with whiter undersides than most raptors, but the yellow-breasted western meadowlark is more colorful and I think would generally be viewed as “prettier.”

As for the attractiveness of their voices, we run into the same problem as before—we’re comparing a songbird (emphasis on “song”) with a bird of prey, which makes this comparison absurd.

For the record, the osprey whistles and chirps and issues high-pitched alarms, often sounding “like a whistling kettle taken rapidly off a stove.”

The western meadowlark has a melodious song that’s one of the iconic sounds of the high desert. In fact, each male has about a dozen songs in his repertoire. Head out to the Badlands Wilderness right now to hear them, and see if your heart isn’t moved.

Advantage: The western meadowlark is beautiful and has one of the most distinctive and melodious songs of any bird in Oregon.

 Western meadowlark. Photo by USFWS

Western meadowlark. Photo by USFWS

Which Bird Is Most Beneficial to the Environment?

All our native plants and animals are adapted to the habitats in which they live, and they play important, if not always fully understood and appreciated, roles in the environment. It’s therefore not possible to say one is more beneficial or valuable than another, any more than you can say one thread in a blanket is better than another. They stitch together to make the whole.

As for how exactly each species helps the environment, you could study that for years, but one part of the story is that western meadowlarks help keep populations of insects like cutworms and beetles in check, preventing undo damage to crops and other plants. And osprey are apex predators that live almost entirely on fish weighing less than a couple pounds, which helps keep populations of aquatic plants and animals in balance.

Advantage: As native animals, both osprey and western meadowlarks are beneficial to the habitats in which they live.

Which Bird is More Symbolic of Oregon’s Natural Areas?

Osprey are found along waterways across Oregon, so they’re a terrific symbol of the rivers and streams that Oregonians love and depend on. The fact that osprey accumulate toxins from the fish they eat should also serve as a reminder that we need to do all we can to keep our waterways pristine.

Western meadowlarks are iconic symbols of the wide-open West—and, remember, about half of Oregon is considered high desert, even though we’re more famous for our rainy valleys and forestlands. Meadowlarks used to be more common west of the Cascades, and could perhaps return in greater abundance if we take more steps to reduce pesticide use and restore habitats.

Advantage: They’re both powerful symbols of different types of habitat in Oregon.

Which Bird Is Easier to See?

Sen. Steiner Hayward argued in favor of adopting osprey as our state bird in part because: "You can see osprey. They’re big. They’re obvious. They have unique flight patterns. They’re fascinating to watch, and they can engage people in a way that a small bird—that’s tough to see—cannot engage people.”

Yes, it’s true that osprey are bigger than western meadowlarks … and eagles and some hawks are bigger than osprey. Don’t get me started.

The larger point is that it doesn’t seem wise to suggest that we should choose a state bird because you can see it as you blast by on the highway at 65 mph.

Or at least an equally valid argument could be made that it is valuable to have a state bird that you have to work to see—getting out of your car and walking quietly in a natural area. If you have binoculars, you can use them. And if you don’t, you can simply open your ears to hear the avian conversations taking place all around you.

Advantage: The osprey is easier to see, but I’m not convinced that should matter.

 Osprey. Photo by  Mike Baird

Osprey. Photo by Mike Baird

And the Winner Is …

To tell you the truth, I found this manufactured competition between two native bird species a little upsetting. Only humans would have the audacity to rate other species and declare winners and losers based on arbitrary criteria.

It’s like Bach vs. Beethoven, Beyoncé vs. Adele, or Ginsburg vs. Scalia. They're all wonderful at what they do, and possess skills and attributes distinct from their counterparts. They're also all interesting, historically important, and worthy of our attention and study.

Still, let’s return to the idea that symbols matter and we can’t just perch on the fence. In that case, I’d point out that Oregon schoolchildren voted for the western meadowlark in 1927. If the Oregon Legislature wants to overturn that decision, I think they should again have the children of Oregon nominate and vote on the bird species they think best represents our great state.

At least that process would help educate children about our native birds—so something positive could come out of this foolishness.

So, which species do you think should be our state bird? The western meadowlark, osprey, or some other bird? Or, heaven help us, maybe we should have a separate state songbird and state bird of prey?