Why is the official bird of Arkansas the Northern Mockingbird?
March 2, 2014 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Why do states have official things?

Pretty much every state now has a long list of official things - official bird, official tree, official gem, official almost anything you can think of. What I don't understand is, why? Is there an actual purpose behind it, like a way to enhance cultural knowledge of the state, or is it just a way for a state to say "yay us because we have this cool thing"?
posted by pdb to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The symbols are either something interesting about the state (though not necessarily unique to that state), or they've got some sort of historical significant or economically important.

According to the Tennessee Blue Book, the decision behind the state tree was as follows:

The tulip poplar was chosen "because it grows from one end of the state to the other" and "was extensively used by the pioneers of the state to construct houses, barns, and other necessary farm buildings."

As for the state bird - also the Mockingbird, by the way - an election was held by the TN Ornithological Society which floated the idea to the General Assembly in 1933. Our state rock is limestone because it's pretty much everywhere. Owing to the importance of music to the state, we have no less than five state songs (yes, one of them is Rocky Top).
posted by jquinby at 4:03 PM on March 2, 2014

Amazingly, the go-to reference book about this topic, State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols: A Historical Guide, doesn't really answer the question of WHY we do these things. The Smithsonian's blog discusses the idea of state flowers coming out of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 (as the site you linked to indicates)where women's groups did floral decorations and lobbied for a national garland decorated with flowers selected for every state (when there were only 44). To hear them tell it "Bird lovers soon suggested the adoption of state birds as well. In many states, plant growers, Audubon societies, nature and garden clubs, and legislators campaigned for favorite flowers and birds."

So I think there's a differentiation with basic stuff like "Why does a state have a symbol/motto?" which is just one of those things that people associate with being a state and "Why do states have an official drink?" which has much more to do with lobbying interests as in this case of Rhode Island declaring their state drink coffee milk (at the behest of Autocrat syrup). I presume the dairy industry is responsible for most of the state beverages (that are declared) being "milk." There is benefit and maybe a little bit of honor/promotion/money available to being linked with a state on an official level, sort of like being "The official ___________ of the Olympics/Superbowl/whatever" I still like this article about what the state birds should be, it always makes me laugh.

I remember in Vermont I was curious about the weirdly red cow that is in the state flag, what its significance was and why it was that color. I emailed some folks at the state library who figured out that the cow is supposed to be "red" according to statute and is probably a Red Devon breed, but the exact reason why (and why there wasn't a sheep, for example) is sort of lost to history.
posted by jessamyn at 4:09 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

is it just a way for a state to say "yay us because we have this cool thing"

The sociological vocabulary for that would be that the symbols are collective representations that stir collective effervescence such that individuals experience collective consciousness and/or recognize their shared consciousness of kind.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:35 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's an easy way to promote an identity for your state, to distinguish it from the 49 others. Pretty important if you want to attract tourists.
posted by dilaudid at 4:56 PM on March 2, 2014

Also more cynically it allows politicians to do something good and get their name in front of voters being associated with good things.
posted by Mitheral at 5:05 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here in Washington state we often get state things as a result of elementary school civics lessons. The students get a chance to make proposals to the legislature about what should the official state bird, mammal, mollusk, flower, etc...
posted by brookeb at 5:14 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The state dish of Texas is chili. The rumor round these parts is that the chili lobby gained vital points over the barbeque lobby by setting up a big tent on the capital grounds on the day of the vote and doling out free chili and, importantly, cold beer.

So that, at least, is one way these things get decided. Our state bird is also the Northern Mockingbird.
posted by theweasel at 5:37 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in birds in particular, you should read this epic rant.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:44 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

dilaudid: "Pretty important if you want to attract tourists."

Him: "Hey, Honey, we've got these 3 vacation days saved up, and while that's not long enough for a European vacation...
Her: "Yeah, nothing in our bank account says "Paris flights", either...
Him: "... Yes, well, anyway, I was thinking: Colorado for the mountains and skiing, or Yosemite for the breathtaking, nowhere-else-on-Earth geysers and whatnot...
Her: "Excuse me, Mr. World Traveller, aren't you forgetting something?"
Him: "Um, ... no, I don't think so."
Her: "Aren't you forgetting... the state bird of Arkansas is the Northern Mockingbird?"
Him: "Holy free-holies! My goodness, I did forget that! Where was my head... (kisses her) THAT is exactly why I married you, you brilliant planner, you. Arkansas it is, then!"
posted by IAmBroom at 1:47 PM on March 3, 2014

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