Sunday, May 28, 2017

5 Themes, 50 States, 34 Birds

Spoiler Alert: Maryland Wins!
Image: via Nicholas Lund, Slate
Readers of this space know that I have a very broad conception of what constitutes geography, even environmental geography. Everything from cigarette butts to snowboards have been included in these posts. So my inclusion of a snarky column about the selection of state birds should come as no surprise. Birds are very geographic, after all!

I am taking the opportunity, however, to make some connections between Nicholas Lund's brilliant 2013 screed on state birds and the Five Themes of Geography identified by the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE).

Lund offers a state-by-state listing of officially designated birds, with a suggestion for a better choice in the vast majority of cases. His reasoning is as geographic as his humor is acerbic.

1. Location: Birds are found in specific locations, and nobody is a birder who is not also good with maps. In many cases, Lund's complaint about state birds is that they are found over a much broader range than the state that they are purported to represent. Most of the birds he recommends are not limited to a given state (they tend to migrate, after all), but he rightly prefers those that are not ubiquitous across the continent.

2. Place: This theme is the one that is most relevant to Lund's essay. Maryland and New Mexico, for example, have state birds that people can readily associate with those states. In many cases -- such as Florida -- Lund suggests a choice that people would automatically associate with the state, but which the state itself has not chosen. Birds, sports teams, food, music, topography, climate, vegetation, universities -- all of these and more come together to form what geographers call "sense of place." Smart state-bird choices can reinforce that kind of identity.

3. Human-Environment Interaction: Lund does not address this very directly, but the interaction is implied by his careful attention to the rich variety of bird species found in the United States. The National Audubon Society is one of our most important environmental organizations precisely because the fate of birds is so inextricably linked to the environmental behaviors of humans. Pollution, hunting, habitat alteration, and climate change all have important implications for birds. Birds also are among the aspects of the natural environment that humans can most enjoy.

4. Movement: The NCGE document above emphasizes the movement of humans and their goods and ideas, but movements in the natural world are also important to the study of geography. Whether it be birds, plants, air masses, or continents -- natural movements help to define and connect places. In my study of coffee, I find many parallels in the movements of birds and humans in the western hemisphere. See the Coffee & Conservation blog for many examples of the connections between migratory birds and coffee cultivation in the Americas.

Where Lund mentions 400 birds in Texas, it is not related to the great size of the state. Rather, he is referring to the convergence of flyways that essentially funnel more than half of all birds sighted in the United States into one small area in the southern tip of Texas. Because of the limited remaining habitat in that southern tip (where I lived from 1990 to 1994), all of those species can be found -- at different times of the year -- in just two small places: the Port Aransas and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges.

5. Region: Lund does not overtly address the concept of regions, but researching this post led me to an interesting example of how humans conceptualize regions. The aforementioned Audubon Society organizes its own activities on the basis of the flyways that are pursued by migratory birds. A large number of these converge in South Texas, but other flyways are important for organizing ornithological studies throughout the continent.
Image: Audubon Flyways

As Lund mentions, Texas has many birds that would be more distinctive candidates for state bird than the northern mockingbird. It is the only state for which he offers a short list of alternatives. Discussing this with my wife Pam, who lived with me in Texas for three years, we have another suggestion: the chachalaca. Our home in the Rio Grande Valley (which is not a valley, but that's another story) was in the southern tip of Texas and the northern edge of the chachalaca's range.

No place else has a bird that sounds like this. As the person who posted this video writes, it sounds like broken machinery. Texas is also were we attended Quaker meeting. That is -- 60-minute, silent meditation meeting. Chachalacas certainly were not conducive to that!

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