The Tale of the Washington State Bird, Volume 1: Meadowlarks, Goldfinches, and Mugwumps
From the desk of Mary Paynton Schaff
Every school child knows that the willow goldfinch is the official State Bird of Washington. But less well known is the fact that the willow goldfinch had a long and controversial road to approval – 23 years of bickering and grandstanding, all of which culminated in a dramatic and highly amusing floor debate in the state’s House of Representatives.
But first, let’s go back to 1928 when Washington’s school children were given the task of selecting a state bird. According to this website, the children selected the western meadowlark, a lovely bird with a problem. The meadowlark was already state bird of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Oregon (selected in 1927 also by a poll of Oregon school children and made official with their governor’s proclamation). It would go on to become the state bird of Montana, Kansas, and North Dakota as well, making it the second most popular state bird in the United States. Clearly, school children across the country were partial to the meadowlark, but Washington needed a bird that was more unique.
In 1931, the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs took up the issue, polling their membership over which bird should have the honor. The ladies returned a different result: the willow goldfinch. But rather than deciding the question, popular opinion had it that Washington now had two unofficial state birds.
And no one seemed in a hurry to decide the matter. A full 12 years passed before the Senate passed Senate Bill 134 making the willow goldfinch the official state bird and the rhododendron the official state flower. The February 9, 1943 Seattle Times then described a prophetic exchange between Senator Barney Jackson of Pierce County and Senator Paul G. Thomas of King County during the floor debate regarding the state bird:
Jackson: What is the difference between a goldfinch and a mugwump?
Thomas: A goldfinch is a bird, but a mugwump is something that just sits on a fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.
But despite the senators’ self-aware debate of the goldfinch, the House of Representatives never took action on SB 134, and the official authorization languished in committee no man’s land. Washington was now going on 15 years with no official state bird. Just how long could the Legislature ignore the unofficial dual bird situation? Tune in for our next installment to find out.
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