On April 6, 1927, our state’s 83rd Legislature adopted the chickadee as the official state bird of Maine. “The state bird shall be the chickadee,” read the law. This seemingly uncontroversial statement came back to haunt us in 2019 when Nick Lund of Maine Audubon declared that the state should reconsider. It was the lack of specificity that bothered him. On NPR’s All Things Considered, he pointed out that the chickadee is not one species but a group of them, two of which reside here in Maine. Maine’s two chickadees are the ubiquitous black-capped chickadee and the lesser-known boreal chickadee. The legislature held hearings to determine whether they should pick one bird or the other, and partisans came before them to testify.

One camp held that the state should enshrine the boreal chickadee because they are native only to Maine, (actually, they also reside in Canada, but apparently that doesn’t count so long as another state, like Massachusetts, can’t claim them,) and because their habitat is being encroached upon by climate change. We’ll call this the underdog camp.

On the other side were proponents of the black-capped chickadee, who weren’t moved by the plight of the boreal. The black-capped chickadee is what you picture when you picture a chickadee. Black-capped lovers felt that it was this bird’s prevalence, not its rarity, that made it worthy of selection. It’s a black-capped chickadee on the license plate for crying out loud! And we wouldn’t want to have to change the license plate.

After hearing arguments on both sides, the legislature decided not to act.

When I tried to discover the history of Maine’s original decision to adopt a state bird, I found it difficult to find definitive sources or any real backstory. I didn’t have the resources to travel to Augusta and comb the archives so a deep dive of the internet would have to do. Most of what’s online about Maine and the chickadee are recent news articles about the above-mentioned debate. Thrilling though that episode was, I was surprised not be able to find more narrative resources about the original legislation. I expected to find some backwater of Maine.gov with a folksy story about a determined bunch of bird enthusiasts and a handful of willing statesmen, but no such luck.

I found one website called ereferencedesk.com, which mentions a campaign by the State Federation of Women’s Clubs but offers neither context nor sources for further reading. Another article at a site called wisegeek.com mentioned a bird enthusiast from Castine, but again no narrative or evidence.

The state website does have a blurb about the state bird, but it is probably the most boring paragraph I’ve ever fallen asleep while reading. It lists the bird’s body measurements and concludes without further commentary. This dry piece of reading is part of the kids’ section of the state website. I find it amusing that there is a kids’ section of the state website, and even more so that its makers couldn’t dream up a better way to make nature and state history come alive. The picture on the site is of a black-capped chickadee.

All of which goes to show the kind of online rabbit holes you can fall through when you try to dig up info on the World Wide Web. The specificity of language is important, as the 83rd Legislature has shown us. I tried about 10 different Google searches to try and find what I was looking for. I found many answers but none that corresponded to the question I was asking.

The philosopher Wittgenstein believed that language was the true root of the mind, that even our senses can’t escape the need to pair a thing with its name. I thought of this as I roamed cold webspace in search of a living bird. The chickadee is named for the sound it makes. They make that sweet “chicka-dee-dee-dee” sound you hear on sunny days, the sound Emmerson referred to as a “saucy note out of a sound heart and a merry throat.” Chickadees don’t think too hard about what words mean; they just are what they do.

But humans don’t have that luxury, because we are submerged in a world of words and data, of true fiction and deliberate misinformation. The web of our thought and knowledge is so big we needed a world-wide communications cloud to store it in. I’m sure someone out there knows the real story of how Maine got its bird, and I hope to meet that person in real life, not in the Metaverse.

Not that the Web is all bad. Allaboutbirds.org is a wonderful resource. A project of the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it is full of great biological and ecological information as well as beautiful photos, videos, and cute little audio clips with bird sounds. I learned much about the chickadee there, and perhaps, due to their fresh multimedia, even gained more sensory experience of the bird than I could have if I went outside and hoped to find one.

In the Bangor Daily News Bob Duchesne defended the idea of having state birds or flowers in the first place. Aside from their real economic benefits, he tells us, state designations have educational value as well. They push us to talk about regular everyday things that are significant to our place. He points to the chickadee debate as a perfect example. It gave the boreal chickadee, who are in danger of disappearing from Maine, a very real hearing in the state legislature. If it hadn’t been for a glaring lack of specificity in 1927, I might never have known there was more than one kind of chickadee in Maine.

I will be more careful now to say “black-capped” chickadee instead of just chickadee. I hope someday to see a boreal chickadee here in Maine. I’m glad I know the difference between them, and I feel no need to choose.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Thomaston, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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