Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How the Mountain Bluebird came to be the State Bird of Idaho

Continued response to Nick S.'s question about the Mountain Bluebird in a previous post...

I had a brief opportunity to swing by the Boise Library yesterday to learn more about how the Mountain Bluebird came to be the state bird of Idaho.  The story is actually very fascinating and there was a bit of drama that I didn't expect.  Thanks to the helpful assistance of a gal named Ronnie at the Boise Library, I was able to find an article from the Idaho Daily Statesman, dated August 22nd, 1930.  (Not to mention dozens of articles referencing Al Larson and Elma Goodman, but not that far back.)  Below I paraphrase or copy word for word portions of that article:

In 1928, nothing had yet happened toward the selection of a state bird.  The Bald Eagle was suggested, but public sentiment was that they didn't want to take away from the National emblem, and thus the suggestion was eliminated from the start.

A questionnaire was sent to all the women's clubs across the state of Idaho to find out which bird was the most beloved.  Many varieties of songbirds, the dove (presumably the Mourning Dove), game birds like the Sage Hen, were recommended, but the most popular was the blue bird (which species of blue bird was not yet specified).  Meanwhile, the school children across the state were given the opportunity to vote and they too favored the blue bird.

Mrs. Everett Barton (probably Loraine Selby-Barton) of Emmett, Idaho, Chairman of Conservation for the Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs, had read that the Western Tanager was discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1806 in Idaho.  She become obsessed with the idea that this should be Idaho's state bird.  Its historical significance, great beauty, and sweet song, she felt made the Western Tanager truly Idaho's.  A period of intense propaganda followed. (Read Lewis & Clark's journal entry here of their discovery of the Western Tanager at Camp Chopunnish, Idaho on June 6th, 1906)

At the Federation meeting in Weiser, school votes for the state bird read "meadow lark, blue bird, and robin".  Because those birds had already been chosen by other states, Mrs. Barton, as Chairman of Conservation presented the Western Tanager.  At this meeting a resolution was made to allow the school children a chance to vote to adopt the Western Tanager.

Nothing happened that winter or that spring and it was determined by Governor Baldridge and the State Superintendent of Schools that the summer would be used to let Idaho's citizenry learn more about the Western Tanager and to see if people would recognize it.  Mrs. Barton requested photos of the Western Tanager that she could send to the schools throughout the state to convince the children of her choice.  But the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, and the American Nature Association all replied that they had no photos for such a purpose (this was during the Great Depression after all).  The American Nature Association wrote back with a note of encouragement to select the Mountain Bluebird species as it had not yet been chosen by any other state and that "it is friendly, nests in bird houses, and is your best choice."

The County Superintendents of Schools announced that they stood behind the children's vote.  The Governor hadn't recognized a Western Tanager all summer, so he favored the more common Mountain Bluebird as it was found in all the regions of Idaho (at least above 3500 feet).  The Idaho Federation of Women's Clubs voiced that they had always been in support of the blue bird before Chairman Barton got off on her "tanager tangent".  Chairman Barton resigned and as a swan song gave a final report of her futile effort to make the Western Tanager the Idaho State Bird.

So, on February 28th, 1931 the Mountain Bluebird became the official state bird of Idaho, along with the state flower, the Syringa blossom.  While Mrs. Barton's historical reverence provided a solid argument in favor of the Western Tanager, a bird that thrills me every time I see it...I love them both...I personally am happy that the Mountain Bluebird overcame the challenge and was chosen by the school kids.

As Paul Harvey used to say, "And now you know the rest of the story."


  1. That is a really interesting story with a beautiful photograph to illustrate it. The bird was a good choice.

  2. Any idea who shot the picture of the mountain bluebird?

  3. Clare - back when I posted this, I was terrible at citing the photographer...this was before I got into photography myself. I found it doing a Google Image search. Loads of sites use it, so I don't know if it was a stock photo part of creative commons or not. I would love to know who the photographer is because it is one fantastic image.