And so it ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. The Great Chickadee Debate of 2019 is over. The Legislature has decided to do nothing. Actually, in my experience, doing nothing is one of the best things the Legislature can do. I propose that doing nothing is an absolutely fitting end to the chickadee debate.
It all started when Nick Lund, Maine Audubon’s outreach coordinator and self-confessed bird nerd, noticed that there was a law flaw. As passed by the Maine Legislature in 1927, the law simply says: “The state bird shall be the chickadee.” The problem is, Maine has two chickadees. All Mainers are familiar with the black-capped chickadee. The boreal chickadee is a brown variation that lives among the spruce trees of the North Woods. Don’t expect to find one south of Bangor.
Recognizing that laws should not be ambiguous, fourth-graders at the Margaret Chase Smith school in Skowhegan sprang into action and proposed that the statute specify which chickadee was the official state bird. Students took a vote and the majority favored the boreal chickadee — mostly because the black-capped chickadee is the Massachusetts state bird, and they preferred a chickadee that was more distinctly Maine. Others pointed out that we had it first. Massachusetts stole the black-capped chickadee in 1941.
Many Mainers wondered why the Legislature would waste time on such matters. I served in the House of Representatives for a dozen years. I was there for the debate that designated Moxie as the official state soft drink. I was there when the whoopie pie was named the official state treat. I sat through the heated debate over whether to declare blueberry pie the official state dessert. Such matters have consequence.
For instance, there can be financial benefits. Lisbon, Maine, has a Moxie Festival. Dover-Foxcroft celebrates a Whoopie Pie Festival. A single sentence in state law is a small price to pay for a weekend of economic boost for these towns. Chickadees adorn Maine license plates and road signs. They’re on gift store coffee mugs, t-shirts and Christmas cards. There’s even a chickadee checkoff on your Maine tax form, which supports wildlife conservation.
Official state designations sometimes serve as teaching tools, beginning life in grammar school classrooms. I’ve been asked several times to explain the legislative process to school students, and I usually walk them through the steps by suggesting they pick an official state ice cream. What happens in class is often very much what happens in the Legislature. Kids start arguing. Vanilla? Chocolate!
Actually, the children debate much more nicely than adults do. They debate the merits of each flavor, without partisan rancor. No name-calling. If a kid declares a fondness for ice cream socials, nobody calls him a socialist.
The chickadee debate proved to be a teachable moment for adults, too. We’re actually seeing changes in the distribution of chickadees within the state. Climate change is having a noticeable impact. I suspect legislators in 1927 didn’t even know there were two chickadee species in the state, even though at that time the boreal chickadee population extended much farther south. At one time, they bred on Mount Desert Island. I saw one on Vinalhaven 25 years ago. They are still thick in the North Woods, but they’re disappearing along the coast.
Meanwhile, scientists predict that continued global warming will push the black-capped chickadee northward, and it may someday be replaced by a southern species, the Carolina chickadee.
It’s certain that lawmakers did not intend the original law to mean boreal chickadees, because that name didn’t even exist yet. In Roger Tory Peterson’s ground-breaking field guide published in 1934, it was known as the brown-capped chickadee. Nonetheless, laws should be precise. When somebody gets around to designating official state booze, I look forward to the debate between advocates for Allen’s Coffee Brandy and proponents for Fireball. One thing is for sure: it wouldn’t satisfy anyone to say that the official state beer shall be beer.
Ultimately, the Legislature decided to leave the chickadee question unresolved, unanimously killing the bill in committee. As I said, the Legislature wastes little time on relatively trivial matters. In killing the bill, I think the committee has honored chickadees by treating the matter in the most quintessential Maine way. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Mainers are a stubborn lot, resistant to change. Treating the chickadee ambiguously is such a Maine thing to do, because “we’ve always done it that way.”
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.