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SHE'LL SHOOT DOWN ANY OTHER BIRD

Efforts to replace the mockingbird as state bird run into a powerful foe.

For 72 years, Florida's state bird has been the feisty mockingbird, a gray-feathered mimic that is as likely to show up in a suburban back yard or a downtown park as in a forest or a swamp.

But the mockingbird is also the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. So the state wildlife commission asked schoolchildren to pick a new state bird. More than 20,000 voted for the osprey, a raptor sometimes called the fish hawk.

The osprey "represents the thousands of miles of river ways, lake shores and coastlines that make Florida distinctive in the United States and where this regal bird makes its home," the staff of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote in a memo last month.

However, past attempts at persuading the Legislature to change the state bird have failed. They were shot down by one very powerful, very determined lobbyist: Marion Hammer of the National Rifle Association. And as far as she's concerned, this osprey idea just won't fly.

"I remain unequivocally opposed to changing the state bird," Hammer said last week.

Hammer made it clear that she's not taking this stance because the NRA has a policy on which species of bird best represents the Sunshine State. She just loves mockingbirds.

For one thing, she likes the fact that they're ubiquitous.

"They can be seen on any given day in any area of the state by children and adults alike," Hammer explained. "No other bird I can think of is as common."

She also likes the fact that mockingbirds are willing to fight other birds, even larger ones, that might threaten their nests.

"They are very protective of their family and of their territory," she said.

She also finds their ability to mimic other bird songs and even various sounds highly entertaining. On her home territory, at the state Capitol Building, she has noticed mockingbirds mimicking the sound of ringing cell phones.

They're so convincing "you will see lobbyists and other people reaching for their cell phones," she said, chuckling.

By comparison, the osprey's shriek of "kee-uk!" seems tongue-tied. Worse, the osprey is common primarily in coastal areas, not in the state's interior. To Hammer, Florida's state bird should be easy to spot anywhere in the state.

In 1999, more than 10,000 schoolchildren signed a petition to change the state bird to something far rarer than the mockingbird: the Florida scrub jay. Supporters of the scrub jay boasted about how gentle it is, how it will eat peanuts right out of a person's hand.

Hammer was unmoved.

"Begging for food isn't sweet," she testified in a committee hearing. "It's lazy and it's a welfare mentality."

Scrub jays had lots of other bad habits that disqualified them to represent Florida, she contended.

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

As for the 10,000 kids who signed the petition, Hammer said, "Did the other 2.5 million schoolchildren refuse to sign the petition because they wanted to keep the mockingbird?"

Although Hammer said she wasn't speaking for the NRA, her opposition doomed the effort to switch to the scrub jay in 1999, and again in 2000.

The pro-osprey movement started as a civics lesson for kids in the fourth through the eighth grades, who could choose among the osprey, the great egret, the black skimmer, the snowy egret or the brown pelican.

The wildlife commission worked with education officials so that "students learned about the democratic process by ... researching candidates, campaigning and voting," the commission staff memo says. The program "exceeded expectations. Throughout Florida, students conducted research, wrote speeches, designed campaign slogans and posters for their favorite candidates, and held debates."

Last Nov. 4, on the same day the adults were picking a new president, 78,000 children cast ballots for a new state bird. The osprey won with 28,229 votes, according to Judy Gillian of the wildlife commission. The next step would be getting a bill passed by the Legislature.

But when the Legislature convened in the spring, wildlife commissioners failed to follow up on their promise to ask lawmakers to ratify the children's choice. With the state's enormous budget shortfall, Gillian explained, "we were advised to focus on critical issues. State bird was withdrawn and was not reviewed in any committees."

But now the staff is asking wildlife commissioners to vote this week to make the bird switch a priority for the 2010 Legislature.

Hammer remains unconvinced that there's any need to change birds. Ever since it was chosen in 1927, she said, "the mockingbird has served us well. You shouldn't kick it to the curb just because it's old."

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Tale of the tape - Florida's state bird

Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus) Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Gray with white wing bars and outer tail feathers Color Brown with white crown and dark line through eye
Length: 9-11 inches Wingspan: 13-15 inches Size Length: 20-24 inches Wingspan: 5-6 feet
Insects, berries, fruits Diet Fish
Parks, suburban back-yards, orange groves, forests Habitat Coastal areas and inland lakes
Able to imitate other birds and even man-made sounds Skill Plunges into water feet-first to catch fish in its talons

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