New State Bird and State Tree? Let’s save them, too!

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2021

Florida is blessed with 536 bird species (including 196 breeding, 4 extinct, 167 accidental, 100 exotics, 1 extirpated).  Since 1927, Florida’s State Bird has been the common Northern Mockingbird, a gray perky bird seen frequently in our yards.  Their varied calls imitate and mock numerous other bird sounds, hence its name “ Northern Mockingbird.”  Five states also share this as their State Bird, so it is not a unique situation for our state.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has introduced a bill to change our state bird without suggestions.  Previous efforts in 1999, 2000 and 2016 failed to name the Florida Scrub-Jay as our state bird. A strong case can be made for the Scrub-Jay is because it is endemic only to Florida, and has “Family Values” (Baker, J. (2019) Florida Birds Exposed, Vero Beach: Pelican Island Audubon Society).

Ed Killer supports a change and discusses possibilities:  Swallow-tailed Kite, Everglades Snail Kite, Osprey, Crested Caracara, Yellow or Black-crowned Night Heron, and American Flamingo.  He also “sees a brouhaha brewing between Republicans and Democrats over whether we should select the White Pelican or the Black-Necked Stilt.”

The Brown Pelican should also be considered. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt created  the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, our nation’s first, named for it, to protect this critical breeding site for it and other species.  We now have 563 refuges in the U.S.  In 1963, the Department of Interior designated it a National Historic Landmark. It’s also Louisiana’s State bird.  

The beautiful Rosette Spoonbill, easily recognizable, is an ideal Florida state bird, historically sought by the feather trade,  which has made a remarkable comeback after its population was decimated.    

Common names can be confusing.  At least the Florida state bird is a “bird.” The Florida State Tree, Sable Palm (Cabbage Palm), Sabal palmetto, but oops, is not a true tree, but more closely related to a grass!  While some think it is tree, we should call it the “State Grass.”  The four common turfgrasses are not native to Florida so we would not want to call St. Augustine a state grass, as it’s an invasive exotic.  The opposite is found at the  Garden Club of Indian River County where an interesting tree is commonly called a “ponytail palm” (Beaucarnea recurvata), is not a palm, but a real tree. 

Palm trees do not sequester carbon like trees do or provide cool shade or produce wood like real trees do. 

Thinking of changing the State Bird, why not also correct our State “Tree?” Let’s make it a real tree!  Our state has over 300 beautiful trees that provide shelter, nesting material, and food for birds.  The best tree for birds is the Southern Live Oak, which in Indian River County supports 401 caterpillar species that our insect-eating birds need in large numbers to produce offspring.  Birds won’t nest unless abundant food is available.  Losing trees is one reason why we are losing our birds.

Florida’s stately pine trees ( e.g. slash, long leaf, and sand) qualify, but unfortunately some folks don’t like them because pines shed needles.  Actually, pine needles are the best ground cover and great fertilizer for native gardens and lawns. They don’t contaminate our lakes and lagoon.  Our pine trees are the preferred tree for nesting Bald Eagles, but we are losing our eagles because we are cutting down our trees for development.  

Another favorite is the Bald Cypress found throughout Florida. They and the Red Maple tell us, with their red foliage when we are in fall and springtime.  Otherwise, we need to look at the calendar to see what month we are in!  Beautiful cypress trees, 300 years old found at Blue Cypress Lake, host over 300 active Osprey nests, the largest nesting Osprey population in the world, right here in our backyard!

Besides renaming our state bird and state tree, we desperately need to revise our tree and landscape ordinances to save our trees, wildlife, and environment. Let me know if you can help. Free trees, including Bald Cypress are available at our Audubon House. 

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