FALMOUTH — Mainers have been driving around with a black-capped chickadee on their license plate for 19 years, thinking they are proudly displaying the state bird.

They may not be.

The Maine Legislature in 1927 named “the chickadee” as the state bird. But seven species of chickadees live in North America, and two of them are in Maine.

Nick Lund, a birder who works at Maine Audubon, is calling attention to the confusing state symbol, saying it’s time for the Legislature to fix it. And some lawmakers say they are open to taking up the matter.

Approved 91 years ago, the resolution from the Maine Legislature simply said: “The chickadee is hereby declared to be the state bird for the state of Maine.”

But that’s like declaring that the state mammal is the dog rather than the pug, poodle or border collie. Or, as Lund put it: “It’s like going into Pizza Hut and saying, ‘I’ll have a pizza.'”

“It’s a big oversight,” said Lund, a Falmouth native. “When you’re establishing a state symbol, you should be a little more specific.”

The Legislature has never made clear which of the state’s chickadees it was selecting. The black-capped chickadee, which is common in Maine and throughout North America, sports a distinctive black head and brilliant white cheeks.

The boreal chickadee, which has a brown “cap” and a rusty brown-colored body, inhabits the spruce forestland of western, northern and eastern Maine, and is less common in North America.

“The boreal species is more unique,” argues Jeanne Guisinger, coordinator of the Downeast Spring Birding Festival. “The boreal chickadee is something to come to Maine to see,” she says.

Yet in 1999 the state of Maine ditched the infamous red-lobster license plate in favor of the one featuring the black-capped chickadee that most motorists display today. In fact, several websites including Maine.gov refer to the black-capped chickadee as the Maine state bird.

Lund thinks the Legislature could have reasonably intended either chickadee to be the state bird.

“When you think of the purpose of the state bird, do you think of what is commonly seen or do you think of a bird that represents some unique characteristic of the state?” Lund posed.

‘WHY WOULDN’T YOU USE THAT ONE?’

Lund became interested in state birds in 2013 after noticing that the state of Virginia greeted visitors at its border with a welcome sign featuring a cardinal with a yellow bill. But cardinals don’t have yellow bills. So Lund blogged about the poor choices for state birds. That blog post was picked up by Slate.com and went viral.

This September, after Lund moved back to Maine and took a job as outreach manager for Maine Audubon, he dug deeper into Maine’s state bird and read the vague 1927 statute. He wrote about his finding in the December issue of The Maine Sportsman.

“Growing up I was always very proud to be from Maine and took seriously all the things that represent us,” said Lund, who has a tattoo of the state of Maine on his shoulder.

Falmouth native Nick Lund, a birder who works at Maine Audubon, says lawmakers should clear up confusion about which species of chickadee is the state bird.

Maine Audubon hasn’t taken a position on the chickadee controversy, but Lund says the Legislature should revisit the issue and choose a specific species.

“Somebody should probably put a bill in to fix it, and somebody probably will,” said Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, who has co-chaired the Committee on State and Local Government, which deals with state symbols. “I don’t know anything about chickadee other than that I see the black-capped at our feeders. It’s very common. That’s probably the one it should be. Why wouldn’t you use that one?”

BOTH SPECIES GENERATE SUPPORT

Rep. Danny Martin, D-Sinclair, was surprised to learn of the vague reference in the statute. A former commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who has also chaired the government committee, he said if a bill related to the state bird is introduced, he would carefully consider which one it should be.

Bob Duchesne, a former state representative and the birder who created the Maine Birding Trail, also thinks Maine should designate a specific state bird.

“Absolutely we should,” Duchesne said. “Back in 1927 they probably did not know of the boreal unless they were up in the woods. Loggers in the woods certainly would have seen plenty of boreal chickadees, but that bird may not have been in the consciousness of the lawmakers in southern Maine. Our state tree is specifically the white pine. I think we ought to identify the state bird.”

But John Madigan, D-Rumford, who served last session on the government committee, said a clarification is unnecessary.

“I think if the state bird is the chickadee, you don’t have to be more specific than that,” Madigan said. “I think if it’s the chickadee, it’s the chickadee.”

If lawmakers do take up the issue, Lund wants them to choose the boreal chickadee, because he says it is more representative of Maine’s wild natural beauty – and Maine wouldn’t have to share the same bird with Massachusetts, whose state bird is the black-capped chickadee.

“The state bird should be inspirational. I love the black-capped chickadee, but it’s not unique to Maine,” Lund said. “It’s found all over North America. But people travel to Maine to see the boreal chickadee. It’s a much better symbol of state pride. It represents much more of the state heritage. The boreal chickadee is found deep in the woods.”

However, birding guide Derek Lovitch, who co-owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply, said even though “chickadee” is not taxonomically correct, it’s safe to assume the Maine Legislature in 1927 meant the black-capped, which he prefers.

“The common vernacular used in a non-scientific discussion would be the species most commonly found,” Lovitch said. “It would be the common default chickadee in the area, because it is the one that is so common.”

‘IT’S WHAT MAINE IS ALL ABOUT’

In northern Maine, Bill Sheehan said in these divisive times we need a bird that unites us – and that would be the black-capped.

“As much as I love the boreal chickadee you can’t beat the black-capped for a statewide bird,” said Sheehan, the founder of the Aroostook Birding Club. “Everyone knows it, and it’s recognizable. They spend a lot of time in the woods. I do a lot of cross-country skiing and do deer surveys. They have kept me company when it’s 20 below. Eating a sandwich miles from the nearest road, the black-capped are nice company.”

In Washington County, Jeanne Guisinger wholeheartedly disagreed. The coordinator of the Downeast Spring Birding Festival said Maine should better sell its rich natural resources, and the boreal would do that.

Guisinger said the annual festival draws about 200 birders every spring with half coming from out of state. And she said most of those out-of-state birders travel here to see the boreal chickadee.

“It’s one of the festival highlights,” Guisinger said. “The boreal species is more unique. We all have black-capped at our bird feeders. They’re everywhere. And we all love them. But the boreal chickadee is something to come to Maine to see.”

Likewise, Michael Goode, the founder of the Acadia Birding Festival on Mount Desert Island, said the boreal chickadee would better sell what Maine is famous for: its wild, pristine landscape and plentiful wildlife. And he said the boreal would help focus more attention on the environment, at a time that’s needed.

“The boreal would put the ecotourism economy in the limelight and then we could teach some environmental ethics,” Goode said. “It’s what Maine is all about. I think it’s a beautiful idea.”

 

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