Monday, March 01, 2010

From a Brown Thrasher to a Chicken?

To date, Georgia has been one of the handful of southern states to name a bird species other than the Northern Mockingbird or Northern Cardinal as its state bird. Instead of the more popular choices, Georgia has been represented by the Brown Thrasher since 1935. A Georgian restaurant owner is now campaigning to change the state bird to a chicken.
One evening last spring, Chris Cunningham was sitting on his patio enjoying a cocktail and observing the state bird of Georgia, the brown thrasher. It was out in the yard doing whatever it is that thrashers do when Cunningham was seized by a thought.

"The brown thrasher hasn't really done anything for Georgia," he said to his wife. "But the chicken is huge."
His campaign includes a video that praises chickens and describes the Brown Thrasher as "inedible, lazy and migratory." It is hard to tell how serious this is or how likely the campaign is succeed in its stated goals. To me it seems that its real goal may be generating publicity for his restaurant chain or perhaps for some future venture.

If Georgia did make the proposed switch, it would join Delaware and Rhode Island in using the domestic chicken as its state bird. Those two states each chose domestic chicken breeds that are connected with the state, Delaware's Blue Hen and the Rhode Island Red. It is not clear whether this proposal involves a breed specific to Georgia. The only chicken named on the campaign website is "Cornish chicken," which appears to be a common meat industry breed. The fact that a Georgian breed has not been named is one factor that makes me suspect that the proposal is not very serious or likely to get far.

Whether the campaign is serious or not, it is not necessary to defame Brown Thrashers in the process. A migratory bird could hardly be described as lazy, as migratory birds expend much energy and undertake great risk to make their journeys. The Brown Thrasher is a short distance migrant, and in fact overwinters in most of the southern states, including Georgia. Even so, the cycle of moving between breeding and winter grounds and caring for young makes for a very demanding lifestyle. The assertion that Brown Thrashers have not done anything for Georgia is also not true. For one, the Brown Thrasher lent its name to Atlanta's professional hockey team. (Would they become the Atlanta Chickens?) More broadly, they contribute to the proper functioning of Georgia's ecosystems. As omnivores, they eat a variety of insects and other invertebrates, some of which could be harmful to the state's agricultural industry. Healthy and diverse ecosystems contribute a variety of other economic services, such as cleaning pollutants from air and water. While the Brown Thrasher alone is unlikely to attract many visitors, thriving and diverse bird life can attract ecotourism.

In the end, this is not my state, so I am looking at this entirely as an outsider. However, I would be saddened to see such an extraordinary singer and feisty wild bird dropped as a state bird in favor of a domesticated one.

(Thanks to Nick for sending me the link.)

Update: Georgia Conservancy has a petition to keep the Brown Thrasher as state bird.