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This piece was originally published on Discourse Blog on June 17, 2021.
We here at Discourse Blog love our birds. Our site mascot is a starling after all (NOT a crow), and I actually cited “birds” as the thing that got me through 2020. We’ve spilled ink over ducks, turkeys, and uh, chicken, and consider ourselves to be “bird people,” so it felt only natural that we combine our love of avian species with our love of having strong, useless opinions.
All that said, this ranking of the state birds proved difficult! It was honestly painful at times to pit these beautiful beasts against each other! All the birds are good, in my opinion. And just to get ahead of any birds or bird advocates that come after me saying they got a “bad edit,” I’d like to note that I went to painstaking lengths to make sure every bird got the best photo that we could legally use without paying a dime 🙂
Without further ado, here is the definitive ranking of U.S. state birds. Let’s not think of this as a competition, but as a celebration, OK? Caw caw.
32. Hawaiian goose: Hawaii
Look, I’m someone who literally cannot sit through the end of the first episode of a reality competition show because it’s too painful for me to process witnessing the first person being cut. I’d like to move away from this as quickly as possible and simply say that I would have expected something else from Hawaii. Oh, and if you’re wondering why this list starts with No. 32, we’ll get to that in a moment.
31. Hermit thrush: Vermont
Alright, here’s where we enter the “brown bird” phase of the rankings. These are precious, sweet babies who have zero flaws expect that they are a bit boring and same-y. I’m so sorry, birds.
30. Carolina wren: South Carolina
Love the chest coloring and the slight downward turn of the beak! Very distinctive.
29. Brown thrasher: Georgia
The speckled coloring is immaculate, and look at that tail!
28. Wood thrush: District of Columbia
We’re including U.S. territories and D.C. on this list (with the exception of Puerto Rico and American Samoa, which don’t have official birds) in part because they bring some heavy hitters to the party. Look at the spots!
27. Northern mockingbird: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas
With the northern mockingbird, we’ve arrived at a point where the process for making this list must be noted. Inexplicably, many states have claimed the same bird, despite the fact that there are over a thousand different bird species in the United States. Why? I cannot begin to guess, but I’ve decided that for this catalog, any bird that has been claimed by multiple states cannot win best state bird. That honor should go to a bird that’s singular in its status as the feathered emblem of a state or territory. The northern mockingbird is lovely, but with five states claiming it as their own, its ranking must change accordingly. Populism has no home here.
26. Ruffed Grouse: Pennsylvania
Maybe not the most thrilling bird, but the poofed feathers and shades of brown are adorable.
25. Guam rail: Guam
The Guam rail is endemic to Guam, where it’s known as the Ko’ko’ bird. It was once threatened with extinction, but through conservation efforts, the population has been revived. Still, the Guam rail is categorized as critically endangered so let’s all appreciate it and the people who’ve kept it from going the way of the dodo.
24. Bananaquit: Virgin Islands
The bananaquit is nicknamed the “sugar bird” for its affinity for fruit and nectar, and is also known for its ability to adjust well to human environments. It’s also cute as hell.
23. American robin: Connecticut, Michigan, Wisconsin
Look, I love the robin. There’s something nestled in those red-orange feathers that simple screams “Platonic ideal” of an American bird. Frankly, I don’t think it would want the attention of a high ranking. It’s a humble icon and its place on this list is a show of respect.
22. Lark bunting: Colorado
The lark bunting posed a tricky problem because the male (shown above) looks extremely cool and the female, while also very cool and perfect, is sort of in the “brown bird” category. Anyone who’s watched five minutes of Planet Earth knows that this is often the case (several birds on this very list have stark differences between males and females), so we can’t judge too harshly, but we did have to take it into consideration and rank accordingly.
21. Yellowhammer: Alabama
We’ve now entered the “yellow bird” phase of the list, which is similar to the brown bird phase, but cheerier. I adore the color nuances in the yellowhammer.
20. Western meadowlark: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming
MANY states claim the western meadowlark as their state fowl, and its most notable features are its yellow plumes and flute-like calls. Neat!
19. Northern cardinal: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia
Okay, here it is, the bird claimed by the most states: the northern cardinal. A cardinal is one of those birds that’s so distinctive and attention-grabbing, that you always point and say, “look, a cardinal!” when one comes into view. It demands notice and it gets it! Also, I was pleased to discover in my research that the female cardinal looks rad in its own way. Good bird!
18. Baltimore oriole: Maryland
The Baltimore oriole has gorgeous plumage, sings beautiful songs, and gets its name from a resemblance to the colors on the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore. A legend!
17. Delaware Blue Hen: Delaware
I can already feel the haters coming for me on this one and I welcome your ire. First of all, visit Google image search to get a better understanding of why these lads are called “blue hens.” They are bred and not officially recognized as a breed of chicken and were used in cockfighting back during the Revolutionary War days. As a vegetarian and animal rights person, I’d like to formally apologize to the blue hens for treating them like our playthings in a myriad of ways and offer No. 17 on this list as a show of goodwill.
16. Rhode Island Red: Rhode Island
Keep coming, haters. When you think of all that chickens have done for this country and its people, and all of the nightmarish conditions we put them through, and how cool they look (we take it for granted, but they do!) we really should give them more acclaim. Let’s give it up for the chicken.
15. Willow ptarmigan: Alaska
This was a bird that I was going to put toward the bottom of the list at first glance, but then I found out it’s a shapeshifting “master of camouflage“—white and snowy in the winder and reddish-brown in the summer. Honestly making this list was a real lesson in understanding that birds are incredible in so many ways that are both obvious and subtle and I’ve surely missed at least 50 amazing facts about these guys that would throw this ranking into chaos if they were all revealed.
14. Cactus wren: Arizona
The cactus wren is aptly named in that, in nearly every single photograph I could find of this little guy, he was perched on a prickly succulent. That’s inherently cool, it can’t be denied.
13. American goldfinch: Iowa, New Jersey, Washington
The male American goldfinch is simply stunning in the summer (pictured above) and molts to become a different, but also stunning, olive color in the winter. It’s good-looking in a way that almost guarantees it would ignore you at a party, but you’d still be happy just to share airspace. I know this entry raises the question: Why this bird and not the other yellow birds for #13 and I’m going to lay my cards on the table and say I don’t know!! I was overwhelmed by this task!!
12. Chickadee: Maine, Massachusetts
The chickadee is the textbook definition of a birb in that it is small, round, and cute. I love it.
11. Purple finch: New Hampshire
I often think about how the very fact that fruit grows out of the ground is the No. 1 thing that regularly makes me feel like I’m living in a simulation. The earth just provides pineapples and mangos for us to eat???? Anyway, the colors on this bird are the same.
10. Eastern bluebird: Missouri, New York
Yep, this one too.
9. Mountain bluebird: Idaho, Nevada
By far the toughest case for my rule that a bird loses points when claimed by multiple states. The mountain bluebird is absolutely stunning!!!
8. Ring-necked pheasant: South Dakota
Am I a sucker for the common, simple birds? Probably! But cast your gaze upon this meek forest bird with its spectacular iridescent feathers and “rich crowing calls” and tell me it’s not worthy of our cheers.
7. California quail, California
I can’t lie, I had planned to give the California quail a low ranking on account of it being a mere quail when the California Scrub Jay is right there, but then I got a look at this guy and he’s simply undeniable. Goofy and majestic, gorgeous coloring, humble yet regal. A sight to behold!
6. Common loon: Minnesota
This bitch will never go out of style. Look at him go!! Flap those wings, you common loon. Show off that dagger-like bill.
5. California gull: Utah
Okay, again, I didn’t expect a simple seagull to rank so high on this list until I read that the California gull, the state bird of Utah (???), is “remembered for assisting Mormon settlers in dealing with a plague of Mormon crickets. A monument in Salt Lake City commemorates this event, known as the ‘Miracle of the Gulls.’” What? Yes. In 1848, Utah’s Mormon farmers were threatened by a grasshopper plague (I’m imagining a Days of Heaven situation) and the gulls came to the rescue by eating up the encroaching insects. The story is probably a bit overblown, but the folklore resulted in a very cool monument and if other historical figures are allowed hyperbolic mythology, so are seagulls.
4. Greater roadrunner: New Mexico
The greater roadrunner can run 15 miles per hour, hunts an enormous variety of creatures (including poisonous prey and rattlesnakes as if it’s no big deal), and positively thrives in harsh desert climates that would level most of the birds on this list. I mean!!!! It also looks like a dinosaur (in a good way) and you can’t tell me otherwise. It’s a living luminary in natural history and popular culture. Beep beep.
3. Brown pelican: Louisiana
2. Scissor-tailed flycatcher: Oklahoma
LOOK AT THIS BIRD. That sick tail helps it maneuver through the air and catch insects. It screams fierce elegance and I’m obsessed.
1. Mariana fruit-dove: Northern Mariana Islands
You simply cannot beat a tropical bird, sorry.
Before we close this out, some miscellanea of note: Some states have elected “other” state birds including the wild turkey, which is the “state game bird” or “wild game bird” of Alaska, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. There’s also the bobwhite quail, which is the state game bird or wild game bird of Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee. And the wood duck, which is the state duck of South Carolina and the state waterfowl of Mississippi. The peregrine falcon is the “state raptor” of Idaho, and as Discourse Blog editor Jack Mirkinson noted, “it is the home of so many nazis so stanning ruthless killers is kind of its vibe.” On the other end of the spectrum, Wisconsin is the only state with a bird of peace, named as such in 1971. Incredible hippie vibes from an unexpected source!
Okay, clearly I could be here all day monologuing about the wonders of the avian species! Let’s take this to the comments.