STATE SYMBOLS HELP WILDLIFE

by Whit Gibbons

November 27, 2016

Tennessee has a book that every state should have – “Tennessee State Symbols” by Rob Simbeck (University of Tennessee Press). By this I mean every state has symbols that should be identified and discussed the way Simbeck does those for Tennessee.

Such symbols have positive impacts, both direct and indirect, on wildlife and the environment. With a little creative thinking in the classroom, they can also offer civics lessons for schoolchildren.

The book about Tennessee state symbols includes great back stories about the way each one was chosen. For example, the mockingbird was the winner on a statewide ballot to select the state bird during a gubernatorial election in 1933, beating the robin by fewer than 500 votes. A recount was not required. For plant and animal state symbols, the author provides extensive background information on the ecology of each species.

Birds are clearly the most common group of animals represented in each state. Seven states even have two, the second one being a game bird. In addition to having the mockingbird as its official songbird, Tennessee chose the bobwhite for its game bird. Alabama’s state bird is the northern flicker, aka yellowhammer, with the wild turkey being the state game bird. Alabama is the only state with a woodpecker as its state bird, but turkeys are the officially recognized state game birds of South Carolina, Massachusetts and Oklahoma.

More than half the states have a state reptile, which in Tennessee is the eastern box turtle. An anecdotal aside in the account about Tennessee’s selection of the box turtle is a telling one about political attitudes and public support for native wildlife. The author recounts the story of sixth-grader Heather Harrison, who became the champion for the box turtle over protests by the head of the state Senate, who thought the legislature should not be wasting time selecting a state reptile. He asserted that elected representatives “have more important things to do,” such as balancing the state budget.

But the story did not end there. The Tennessee Senate’s rejection of the box turtle as the state reptile was only temporary. Thanks to Heather Harrison’s letters to politicians and her depiction of the box turtle as an appealing creature, newspaper editorials and stories began to appear.

All, including one in the Wall Street Journal, championed the box turtle. One article even cited a bill in Alabama designating the Alabama red-bellied turtle as a state symbol. Thanks to these efforts – and to the public’s contention that recognizing native wildlife was, in fact, an important job for state legislators – Heather’s campaign for the box turtle was ultimately victorious.

State symbols such as wildflowers, mammals, reptiles and amphibians help make people more aware and more appreciative of their state’s native wildlife. Symbols bring attention to certain animals and plants, for example, cave salamanders and passion flowers in Tennessee, that are otherwise unlikely to be recognized by anyone except experts in the field. Highlighting the existence and unique qualities of native wildlife in such a symbolic way can often bring greater appreciation by the general public.

Many of our state wildlife symbols across the country were initiated by schoolchildren, and the process can have many pedagogical rewards. The book reveals that one benefit of selecting wildlife symbols is that students can become more informed about the legislative process in their state.

One example given is that of a high school class that involved surrounding communities and selected the zebra swallowtail over the monarch as the official Tennessee state butterfly. The teacher and students followed their initial proposal and drafting of a bill as it went through House and Senate committees, to voting on the floor, to signing by the governor.

Spending time in legislative sessions devoted to designating state symbols may seem like a frivolous exercise to some politicians. Not so. Increasing public awareness of a state’s plant and animal diversity confers long-term benefits on people and native wildlife alike.

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