Washington, D.C.’s Official Bird: Trouble at the Home Front
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
AND IF A HOUSE BE DIVIDED AGAINST ITSELF, THAT HOUSE CANNOT STAND. MARK 3:25
The District of Columbia’s official bird’s population faces precarious peril, nowadays, and there seems to be a “homeland security” problem. But how is that? And what is the official bird of Washington, D.C., anyway? It’s not the Bald Eagle – that’s America’s national bird. Washington, D.C. has its own official bird.(1)
Flag of Washington, D.C., based on George Washington’s family coat-of-arms
The typical birdwatcher is well aware of his or her state’s official bird.
So if you were born in Maryland, your official state bird is the Baltimore Oriole.(2) [Regarding the Baltimore Oriole, see my “Appreciating Baltimore Orioles and my First Bird Book”, later condensed as “Attracted to Genesis by Magnets and a Bird Book”, Acts & Facts, 44(8):19 (August 2015.]
Like typical politicians of Foggy Bottom, D.C.’s official bird is an omnivore – willing to consume most of whatever is available, whether that be bugs (including their larvae), snails, salamanders, or fruits (especially those having more lipids).
Yet, also like Washington politicians, this bird is itself targeted by many predators. The adults (of D.C.’s official bird) are themselves sometimes eaten by owls and hawks that frequent deciduous wet woods. Also, this bird’s young (i.e., eggs and hatchlings) are preyed upon by several larger birds (such as corvids, icterids, owls, and accipiter hawks), a few mammals (such as house cats, raccoons, weasels, squirrels, and chipmunks), and even some snakes.(3)
So what is the official bird of the District of Columbia? (With a name like “Columbia” you must expect it to be a dove, since “Columbia” is a form of the Latin word for “dove”.) Or you might expect, based upon the official coat-of-arms fo the George Washington family, that D.C.’s bird would be a raven. For many years the District of Columbia had no official bird of its own. In fact, until D.C. was granted a limited form of “home rule” (starting in AD1967), by Congress, D.C. didn’t have jurisdictional authority to designate an official bird for its domain.(1)
Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) ©Nhptv.org
Nevertheless, among Washingtonian birders, many unofficially adopted the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), a rather inconspicuous passerine who vocalizes flute-like notes, brown above and mottled brown-on-white below, as D.C.’s special bird. One illustration of this came shortly after World War II, when the D.C. Audubon Society (now called the “Audubon Naturalist Society”) was incorporated; its new monthly journal was called The Wood Thrush.(1)
Finally, in January of AD1967, D.C. Commissioners (armed with new powers delegated to them by Congress) took official action, and decreed that the Wood Thrush was D.C. official home-rule bird. Then came the question: how many Wood Thrush residents actually lived inside D.C.’s boundaries? This question was not (and is not) easy to answer, with accuracy, because bird surveys often involve bird counters (driving cars) who pull off the road, onto the shoulder, to observe birds in wooded areas next to roads. But D.C. has very few such shoulders (on the wood-edge roads), so mobile bird counters are handicapped from using their usual observation habits. So the real numbers of their questionable population are estimated more by guesswork than by direct observation.
Wood Thrush family at mealtime ©Audubon
Although often hidden from curious human eyes, at least the flute-like notes of these birds can often be heard in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park (a national park since AD1890!), a well-wooded deciduous forest of the nation’s capital.(1) In more ways than one, the Wood Thrush is not “out of the woods”. In fact, its population stability is threatened by woodland habitat loss, as remaining wet woods inexorably yield to more and more “creeping” urban and suburban development.
Yet probably worse, however, the Wood Thrush population suffers from brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds – “home invaders” that intrude via false pretenses – as the brown-headed “foster children” greedily consume food intended for the nest’s “rightful heirs”, displacing the thrush nest’s rightful nestlings in the process: “The wood thrush mistakenly protects these [home invader] eggs and feeds the [soon-hatched] cowbird young – who are larger and more aggressive, frequently causing wood thrush hatchlings to starve.”(4)
Once again, one finds a comparison with Washington’s federal politics – a failure of homeland security, a fundamental defalcation in defensive gatekeeping.(5) It’s “like déjà vu all over again”. Maybe the precarious population of D.C.’s official bird should remind us to protect our own homes better. ><> JJSJ
- Steve Dryden, “You Might Never See D.C.’s Official Bird, But Hearing It Could Be Just Enough”, Chesapeake Bay Journal, 26(4):32-33 (June 2016).
- For more on the Baltimore Oriole, see my “Appreciating Baltimore Orioles and my First Bird Book”, later condensed as “Attracted to Genesis by Magnets and a Bird Book”, Acts & Facts, 44(8):19 (August 2015).
- See Roger Tory Peterson, Eastern Birds – A Completely New Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 4th ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), pages 222-223 & map M273; James Coe, Eastern Birds (Golden Press, 1994), pages 114-115; Donald W. Stokes & Lillian Q. Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region (Little Brown & Company, 1996), page 339.
- Dryden, in Chesapeake Bay Journal, supra, at page 33.
- Regarding brood parasitism (by Brown-headed Cowbirds, African Honeyguides, Common Cuckoos, and others), see also James J. S. Johnson, “Teach Your Children the Right Passwords!”. The phrase “keepers at home”, in the Greek text of Titus 2:5, refers to gatekeeping security, i.e., guarding the family’s home-life from dangers, not janitorial housekeeping. (Of course, this is not to suggest that family members themselves never present dangers to a divided household – see, e.g., Micah 7:5-6; Matthew 10:35-36; Mark 3:25; Luke 11:52-53.)