On the same November day that millions of Americans voted for President Barack Obama, Florida schoolchildren cast a vote of their own: to change the state bird from a mockingbird to an osprey, a raptor sometimes called the fish hawk.

Hamstrung by politics until now, the state wildlife commission is asking lawmakers to put the children’s choice to a vote. The reason for the change? The gray-feathered mockingbird (pictured below), a trusty mascot for 72 years, is also the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

But being unique isn’t reason enough for everyone, and proponents of the switch face a formidable foe in Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

“I remain unequivocally opposed to changing the state bird,” said Hammer, who insisted her job with the NRA has nothing to do with it; she just loves mockingbirds. “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.”

Mockingbirds also are protective of their family and territory. What’s more, they’re entertaining. (Hammer has noticed mockingbirds mimicking ringing cell phones around the state Capitol, she said.)

This is not the first time Hammer faced down plans to change the state bird. In 1999, more than 10,000 schoolchildren signed a petition to change the state bird to a Florida scrub jay. (They chose the scrub jay because the birds are gentle enough to eat peanuts out of a person’s hand.)

But in a committee hearing, Hammer portrayed scrub jays in an altogether different light: “Begging for food isn’t sweet,” she said. “It’s lazy and it’s welfare mentality.” Worse, Hammer said, they eat the eggs of other birds. “That’s robbery and murder. I don’t think scrub jays can even sing,” she said.

Last fall, officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission felt it was time to try again. On Nov. 4, 2008, nearly 80,000 schoolchildren cast their ballots. The osprey won, garnering 28,229 votes, said Judy Gillian of the wildlife commission. (Other choices included the great egret, the black skimmer, the snowy egret or the brown pelican.)  

The osprey “better represents the uniqueness of Florida,” according to the wildlife commission. The bird “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,” commission staff wrote in a memo.

But in the spring, the measure stalled when the wildlife commission did not ask state legislators to ratify the choice. With the state facing a huge budget shortfall, the commission was advised to focus on critical issues. Until now, when the commission wants legislators to put the item in the 2010 budget.  

This time around, Hammer is equally convinced there’s no need to change the state bird. “The mockingbird has served us well,” she said. “You shouldn’t kick it to the curb just because it’s old.” 

MNN homepage photo: RUSSELLTATEdotCOM/iStockphoto