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After fuss and feathers, mockingbird still our bird

 
Published April 9, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

The scrub jay is shot down as the new state bird after a leading gun lobbyist derides it as having a "welfare mentality."

Republican Rep. Howard Futch put everything he had into his fight to name the little blue-and-gray scrub jay Florida's state bird. He brought the backing of the Florida Audubon Society, a petition signed by 10,000 school kids and stories about a bird so friendly it will eat peanuts from a child's hand.

"I think it represents Florida," Futch told lawmakers at a House committee hearing Thursday.

What Futch didn't know was that the mockingbird, Florida's current state bird, had a powerful ally: the capitol's chief gun lobbyist.

"Begging for food isn't sweet," the National Rifle Association's Marion Hammer said without a trace of humor. "It's lazy and it's a welfare mentality."

What about the 10,000 kids who signed a petition for the scrub jay?

"That begs the question," Hammer said. "Did the other 2.5-million schoolchildren refuse to sign the petition because they wanted to keep the mockingbird?"

Feathers flew in the ensuing debate: There were charges of criminality, talk of family values and mention of several secret plots. But in the end, the mockingbird could not be killed _ the committee decided to keep it as the state bird.

The mockingbird has been Florida's bird since the 1927 Legislature passed a resolution to that effect, though state law doesn't formally designate it as such.

Futch, and some environmentalists, prefer the scrub jay for that honor. Unlike the mockingbird, the scrub jay is found only in Florida. It is considered a threatened species: Ninety percent of its original habitat has been turned into golf courses, orange groves and developments. Its last stronghold is the Lake Wales Ridge in Central Florida.

None of that impressed Hammer, who said she was testifying on behalf of herself and future generations _ but not the NRA.

No matter that there is no mention of the mockingbird in Florida statutes: "That may not be official enough for the Audubon Society," she said, "but it is good enough for me."

Playing to conservatives on the committee, Hammer said the scrub jay has a sinister nature that is inconsistent with family values.

"They eat the eggs of other birds," she charged. "That's robbery and murder. I don't think scrub jays can even sing."

The real agenda behind the move to change state birds, Hammer concluded, is that environmentalists think that making the threatened bird official will encourage the state to do more to protect its scrub habitat.

"Save the state bird. . . . I can already hear the whining," Hammer said. "Kiss your property rights goodbye."

Futch was momentarily stunned, but he quickly recovered. The scrub jay _ and the bird's habitat _ would get no special treatment under his proposal, he said.

"The mockingbird is very criminal _ it steals other birds' songs," Futch said grimly. "It's a vicious sucker. We call it the catbird down in my district because it attacks cats."

Nevertheless, led by New Port Richey Republican Rep. Mike Fasano, committee members backed Hammer and blocked Futch's bill to designate the scrub jay. Instead, they voted to cement the mockingbird's place in state history by putting its official status in the law books. (The "Snowbird" _ a term used to describe Florida's human winter visitors _ was also briefly considered by the committee.)

After the hearing, Audubon president Clay Henderson had his own conspiracy theory to counter Hammer's worries about property rights. When the Constitutional Revision Commission decided to allow Florida residents a say in regulating sales at gun shows, Henderson provided a key vote for the tougher rules. He said he suspects the NRA is after him.

"This is payback from the NRA. Scrub jays don't harm anyone and for the NRA to brand them as criminal is just absurd. The next thing you know, they will be wanting to hunt them."

Politics, it would seem, really is for the birds.