Monday, February 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Mercenary Ornithology State Birds Post

I am pretty confident at this point that the What The State Birds SHOULD Be post I did a couple years ago will be the most-read thing I ever write.  I'm OK with that; it's had a life far beyond what I expected and as been a lot of fun.

An though it's just a little article, I feel a little paternalistic to the topic of fixing the state bird situation. There's a lot of room in the debate, of course, and a few days ago the folks at Mercenary Ornithology weighed in.  WITH SCIENCE.

Mercenary Ornithology used mathemagics to figure out which bird should be the state bird for each state.  They used some formulas to figure out a bird's Outlier Value, basically how much more likely you are to see a certain bird in one state compared to all others.  The results are great, and much more specific than most of the choices I slopped together. There are blue-winged teal involved now, and red-cockaded woodpeckers and upland sandpipers. It's a much more diverse list, weighted towards state-specific birds, with nary a cardinal in sight.

But it ain't perfect.  What's the problem? Well, at the risk of sounding exactly like old fogey baseball writers railing against the influx of so-called "advanced stats" like WORP and PECOTA: This list ain't got no heart! Where's the human touch? While some of the results of the mechanical approach are perfect, other results range from awkward (a Kentucky warbler for Arkansas?) to depressing (European Starlings shouldn't be a state bird anywhere, even a place as boring as Indiana [j/k Indiana I love you]).

Ya gotta leave some room for debate, and you've got to embrace quirks. Let Rhode Island keep their dumb chicken, it's their thing. Let Maryland keep the's a Baltimore Oriole! There's fun in the details, and room for states to pick birds that aren't very common or easily found in their states.

No matter what other lists people come up with, everyone can agree on one thing: the current lineup of state birds is a national shame, and we gotta do something about it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing this out! What a great and interesting article. Side note: I have lived in five different states, and every single one of them has had Northern Cardinal as state bird.

John B. said...

I think if chickens are out, then introduced species like European Starling and Eurasian Tree Sparrow should also be out.

The data-based approach does create a better slate of state birds than the currently existing one. Using BBS data, though, biases the results towards birds that are present for the breeding season, which is only a few months of the year. I wonder if using year-round data from a source like eBird would produce different results.

Mercenary Ornithology said...

Hello from Mercenary Ornithology! I am pleased our mutual disapproval of the situation with the current state birds of our nation has brought us to your blog. I figure we should issue a formal reply. While we definitely agree with your point - we just don't believe in heart. Too many years of grad school have made us cold, humorless, analytical people. Although approaching field seasons might just free us again from the humorless statistical mindset higher education has cursed us with. Perhaps then we can form an official committee to address the problem of state birds.

In all seriousness, though. We love your blog.

NickL said...

Mercenary Ornithology - I agree with the need for a Committee to fix this, and I appreciate your honesty about being a bunch of science robots. I can't believe you passed the CAPTCHA to comment. Very advanced.

John - great point, breeding birds aren't the only birds!

Greg - So sad you're stuck with cardinals only. Move to Maine.

About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Blog Design | 2007 Company Name