State of Maine: The great chickadee debate



In the pile of bills being considered by Maine legislators, there are some esoteric ones. A bill about cusk. A bill about spat. A bill about auricular acupuncture. Then there are the bills about Maine stuff, the designated symbols that allegedly reflect our state identity.

They are proposed by ardent historians, horticulturalists, geologists and sometimes schoolchildren. Who can resist an earnest fourth-grader advocating for the state crustacean?

These adorable, tiny people work diligently to understand the legislative process, come to Augusta to testify, and then what? Are legislators going to vote against them? No, they are not — with one exception. The immortal Sen. Chuck Begley opined that voting against the wishes of schoolchildren was a way to teach them the valuable lesson of disappointment.

So we have Maine stuff. An animal (moose). A cat, as distinct from an animal (the Maine coon cat). A fish (landlocked salmon). A flower (white pine cone and tassel). A berry. (Come on, people, there’s only one choice here). A dessert, which is made from the Maine state berry (blueberry pie). A Maine “treat” (the whoopie pie), separate but equal from the dessert.

Maine has a state motto (Dirigo), a state insect (honeybee), a state song, a state beverage (Moxie) and a state vessel (the schooner Bowdoin). We have a state gemstone (tourmaline), a state fossil (pertica quadrifaria) and a state soil (Chesuncook).

In addition to these symbols we have ceremonial days. And weeks. Poetry Week. Maine Cultural Heritage Week. Maine Clean Water Week. National Women’s History Week. Maine Business Women’s Week. Alcohol Awareness Week (as if we were not aware of alcohol). Garden Week. Deaf Culture Week. Lighthouse Week.

Statehood Day. Chester Greenwood Day for the inventor of earmuffs. R.B. Hall Day (composer of marches). Saint Jean-Baptiste Day. Seaman’s Memorial Day. Samantha Smith Day. Merchant Marine Day. Margaret Chase Smith Day. Edmund S. Muskie Day. Landowner Recognition Day. Children’s Day. Maj. Gen. Henry Knox Day. Col. Freeman McGilvery Day. National Arbor Day, which was repealed and replaced by Arbor Week.

There are even some special months. Lyme Disease Awareness Month. Invite Your Legislator to School Month. American History Month. There are 39 of these commemorative days, weeks and months, which we are directed to celebrate, observe or acknowledge with appropriate activities.

All these inform the Maine brand, also a topic of discussion in Maine this year. What is our brand? Lobster, blueberries and lighthouses. Is there more to it than that? Of course. But the current “Be inspired, be adventurous, be yourself” pap is lame. It could be applied to at least 40 of the 50 states and says nothing about our signature “differentiators.” You can be yourself anywhere. Likewise inspired and adventurous. Why should you be more yourself in Maine, as opposed to Nebraska?

Here’s why you want to be in Maine. The chickadee, the very bird honored in our list of state stuff, has generated a controversy. Let Washington argue about investigations, liars and impeachment. We are taking to the streets over chickadees. They are our state bird, but in adopting this particular symbol the Legislature failed to specify whether it intended the honor to go to the arboreal chickadee or the black-capped. Without specifying, a bird is a bird is a bird.

Whether you love birds or not, you have to love University of Maine ornithologist Brian Olsen. He went to Augusta to testify and, unwilling to take sides, testified neither for nor against. He offered a tuneful rendering of the calls of each bird. He discussed their habits and habitats. He did not speak ill of either species. And he was deliciously descriptive.

In an interview on Maine Public Radio he said the black-capped chickadee has a song, as well as a distinct call. The boreal, who mostly sticks to Maine’s northern forests, has no song at all, just a call. He said boreal chickadees are known to dine on frozen deer carcasses, a move he called “fairly robust for a songbird.” On the other hand, of the black-capped he said he was “fairly confident they could take me in a fair fight.”

Brian Olsen is just the sort of cheerful, quirky individual that makes Maine Maine. We may not be able to describe it, but we know it when we see it. Rather than the vapid taglines developed through “branding” efforts, let’s put Brian Olsen on our state license plate. Brian Olsen, the Way Life Should Be.

As for the chickadee, let’s just call our state bird “any old chickadee.” After all, according to Nick Lund of Maine Audubon they are practically boy scouts: “Optimistic, cheerful, friendly, resourceful and industrious.” We don’t need too fine a sort of Mainers, either. If you have the aforementioned qualities of either chickadee, you’re good to go.

jillgold@gwi.net

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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