A proposal to dump the western meadowlark in favor of the osprey for the Oregon state bird flew through the Senate this week, drawing lofty rhetoric from lawmakers.
“The osprey is like Oregon,” Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward said. “We are fierce. We are independent. We are ubiquitous across our state. You can find an osprey nesting along any body of water in this entire state whether it’s urban or rural.
“You can see osprey. They’re big. They’re obvious. They have a unique flight patterns. They’re fascinating to watch, and they can engage people in a way that a small bird — that’s tough to see — cannot engage people.”
Now the state bird bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 18, awaits action in the House, likely in May.
Sen. Fred Girod, a fisherman and Republican senator from Stayton, introduced the bill. He said meadowlarks are too small — scarcely bigger than a robin — and not much to see, if they’re even around, which is seldom.
The osprey, a fish-eating bird of prey, on the other hand, has a 5-foot wingspan, and they are clever fishers, diving headfirst into the water and cleverly calculating their target despite the water’s misleading lens, he said.
Defenders of the meadowlark and its song, which the Cornell Ornithology Lab calls a “buoyant, flute-like melody,” say if the state dumps the meadowlark Oregon will be turning its back on a vulnerable species, which is losing its habitat and dwindling in numbers.
Audubon members point to Oregon’s cultural history involving the meadowlark. In 1927, the bird-watching organization asked Oregon school kids to vote on a bird to represent the state. In addition to the meadowlark, they had the western bluebird, varied thrush, Oregon junco, white-crowned sparrow to chose from, according to the testimony of a Eugene bird watcher.
The children “rallied around a delicate little songbird as our state bird,” Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said in an impassioned defense of the meadowlark.
But Girod said the meadowlark was never officially made the Oregon state bird. By fiat, governor Isaac Patterson made it so by proclamation. The Legislature never weighed in, he said.
“The major problem with the meadowlark is that it’s the state bird for five other states. (Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming) That’s just not the Oregon way,” Girod said.
But Chris Thomas of Eugene testified that simply swapping out the meadowlark for the osprey “ignores and disrespects the rich history” of the meadowlark’s rise in Oregon.
“The ‘Oregon’ thing to do would respect the past and embrace the future, let Meadowlark be voted down, ratified or given the chance to stand for re-election as incumbent against osprey, duck or whatever, in a new poll of Oregon schoolchildren,” he said.
Audubon chapters across Oregon volunteered to sponsor a new poll of schoolchildren to settle the matter.
Much of the debate in the Senate was on the surface about the birds but other issues lurked just beneath the surface. English majors will be able to spot the subtext.
“Maybe this bill is indicative of the spirit of this session when we move to replace an iconic herbivore with a dominant carnivore,” she said.
“We offer up this gentle avian friend into the talons of a raptor with precious little public process,” Johnson said on the Senate floor.
“(We) drive a dagger through the soft downy breast of this feathered harbinger of spring. We should be ashamed. ...
“We should consult the public. Don’t validate the caprice of possibly well-intended individuals who wish to replace this gentle presence with a fierce predator and an instinctual killer who visits death on fish from above. I beg you to maintain the melodic song of the meadowlark.”
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said he hadn’t intended to speak on the subject but “was moved by the rapturous speech by my fellow colleague about the dark-of-the-night (legislation).”
But it’s too early, he said. “We’re not halfway through session. We’ll be doing the dark- of-night things in rules committee around the seventh or eighth of July.”
The decision about the bird included public notice and testimony and followed the appropriate process. As a Republican in a state where Democrats hold the governorship, the Senate and the House, Boquist said he pays attention to due process. “We know what the railroad looks like, at least when it runs over us.”
Just before the vote, Republican Girod tried to turn his outsider status into an asset, at least for the sake of elevating the osprey.
“Most of you for a long time have had strong feelings about me,” Girod told his colleagues. “Give me what you’ve always wanted to give me: Give me the bird.”
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