By Mark Davis
Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — Zach Hutchinson has nothing against the western meadowlark, which is probably a good thing. The species is the official Wyoming state bird and popular with most residents in its range. However, Hutchinson thinks there’s a better choice for the state’s designated top spot: the sage grouse.
Consider the facts: The western meadowlark is a pretty bird with a lovely, distinctive song. Many have fallen for the bird without even stopping their car — it’s one of the few birds you can hear while driving through the state at 70 mph with your windows down. And as a bonus, its plumage is highlighted by a pleasant yellow.
But Hutchinson — the founder of the birding website Flocking Around and perhaps the state’s most influential birder — points out that only 6 percent of the western meadowlark population makes its home in Wyoming. And they’re only here during fair weather.
Further, the meadowlark is claimed as the official bird in six different states: Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Kansas, Oregon and Wyoming.
“Do we really want to share anything with a state like Kansas? KANSAS?! No, I say!” said Hutchinson. “Wyoming, unlike those other ‘meh’ states, is unique. We deserve our very own bird.”
In contrast with the meadowlark, roughly 40 percent of all sage grouse live in Wyoming. They’re here year-round, in all their rough-and-tumble spirit, enduring the Cowboy State’s weather through thick and thin. Some have described sage grouse as exotic-looking; others describe them as obscene.
Most are photographed during the mating season, when the males’ great lung sacks are filled with air, displayed and deflated in an attempt to attract a mate. Their flight is anything but graceful, spending much of their time with their thick, hard scrabble-navigating feet (claws) on the ground.
They nest on the ground, feed on the ground and typically stay motionless on the ground when threatened from above.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to love a colorful meadowlark. It’s easier to admire the plump and camouflage-colored sage grouse when considering their tough, determined nature rather than their good looks.
The idea of making the grouse the Wyoming state bird has some strong backing. Gov. Mark Gordon has gone on the record supporting the swap.
“It’s a good concept,” Gordon said. “I’m not the one to advance that, but I think, yeah, I wouldn’t mind the change. It’s a really interesting proposal.”
It reminds Gordon of the long-rumored discussion Ben Franklin had with George Washington about selecting the national bird: Franklin thought the wild turkey should represent the country, while Washington was a proponent of the American bald eagle.
Contrary to legend, there’s no evidence that Franklin protested to Congress about the choice of the bald eagle and lobbied for the turkey.
However, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, he did label the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character,” according to historian Elizabeth Nix. In her 2018 article, “How did the bald eagle become America’s national bird?” Nix noted important historical facts about the bald eagle (which most think is a fine national symbol) that could apply to the sage grouse.
“Despite its symbolic significance, America’s majestic national bird has faced a real-life threat of extinction,” she wrote, referring to habitat destruction, hunting and poisoning from DDT that dropped put the population in danger.
However, thanks to conservation efforts, the eagle population has since been restored.
The sage grouse population, too, has and still faces serious challenges from loss of habitat and other threats. But the challenges are not insurmountable and efforts are underway to protect the bird.
Despite Benjamin Franklin’s misgivings, it was devotion and admiration for the bald eagle that helped save the beloved national symbol.
Powell’s wild game bird expert Karl Bear loves the sage grouse and has long thought it should be the state’s feathered symbol.
“I had that idea years ago,” he said.
But to get the legislative push needed to make a change, it’s going to take more than admiration: Someone in the statehouse has to propose a change.
You can count state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell out.
He said he wouldn’t bring the bill or even co-sponsor it. Laursen cast the single vote against making the tiger salamander the official state amphibian last winter, saying he didn’t believe it was a needed bill.
“I caught heck about that,” he said.
Laursen did say he would enjoy hearing the debate about the state’s official bird. The lawmaker said he likes the western meadowlark, but doesn’t like that five other states share the species.
“I don’t know if I’d be against it, but I wouldn’t be all that excited to vote for it,” he said of any effort to make the grouse Wyoming’s bird. “It’s not important to me, that’s for sure.”
One would assume Game and Fish sage grouse program manager Leslie Schreiber would be a strong proponent in the grouse corner, but she refused to take shots at the meadowlark. Instead she chose to sing the praises of the sage grouse.
“Sage grouse are in that category with pronghorn and all the other critters that stay here year-round. They are resourceful and able to endure the weather we experience in this state,” Schreiber said. “We’d be unique; I’m all for it.”
Sportsmen and women might also be on board, as you can legally eat a Wyoming grouse during the state’s hunting season.