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One vote for the western tanager

The western meadowlark is our state bird, but other candidates have strong credentials
Photo courtesy of ebirdThe western tanager inhabits every forested habitat in Oregon from sea level to timberline and from the coast to the Wallowas.

The state bird of Oregon is the western meadowlark, and the choice is easy to understand. They have one of the most beautiful songs — strong and filled with clear flute-like notes. It brings a smile every time I hear one.

However, I question this choice in idle moments when life permits musings on less important matters. We share our choice with five other states, including North Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. We are a state noted for our tall timber and forested landscapes. So, why do we share the same state bird with prairie states? Why not choose a bird that is symbolic of our verdant and diverse forests?

The choice of the meadowlark speaks to our appreciation of the vocal talents of birds. As a student of birdsong, I can hardly disagree. But there are many forest birds in Oregon whose songs rival the meadowlark. The song of the hermit thrush is championed by many as the most beautiful in North America. The song is similar in many ways to that of the meadowlark. For me, I prefer the Swainson’s thrush for the honor, as its spiraling song fills the evenings along our forested streams.

And one shouldn’t overlook the song of the Pacific wren in this conversation. This tiny bird inhabits the deepest conifer forests, and in the dim light it belts out a rich and complex song sometimes lasting 20 seconds or more. For me, the song invokes visions of towering mature trees, ferns and limbs draped in moss. Not a bad image for Oregon.

Other states value birds of great beauty. Idaho selected the stunning mountain bluebird. Many eastern states chose the cardinal. Other showy choices include American goldfinches (three states) and the Baltimore oriole (Maryland).

If we are looking for brightly colored forest birds to represent our state, we have several to choose from. The bright yellow head of the hermit warbler gleams as it sings from the tops of the tallest conifers. Then there is the beautiful Yellow-rumped warbler, with five bright yellow patches, a large white wing patch and a bold black breast that highlights the color accents. Its name may not be the most dignified, but maybe we can restore its previous name, Audubon’s warbler.

One species that never seems to receive mention in this conversation is the western tanager. It is a brightly colored bird that inhabits every forested habitat in the state from sea level to timberline and from the coast to the Wallowas. The bright red head and yellow body, offset by black wings and tail, are impressive. My students were always delightfully surprised at their first sighting of this striking bird. It feels like an escapee from the tropics, which it is in some sense.

Brightly colored tanagers abound in the tropics, with few northern representatives. It is common in the forests of the Rogue Valley during the breeding season. While its song is not in the same league as that of the meadowlark, its robin-like song is quite pleasing on a May or June morning while on a hike anywhere in Oregon’s iconic forests.

If anyone should ever open the debate again, I would like to nominate the western tanager for Oregon’s state bird.

Stewart Janes is a retired biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.