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Michigan lawmakers are considering changing the state's official bird

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A far less divisive battle might soon be underway over the state bird. Lawmakers may choose that the robin has got to go. Interlochen Public Radio's Patrick Shea says, in this case, there is bipartisan support.

PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: What does it mean to have a state bird? Every state has at least one, and it's really just symbolic, all about pride and identity. Michigan picked its state bird in 1931, when the Legislature passed a resolution calling the American robin, with its dark head and red-orange breast, the best known and best loved of all birds in the state. Its call is considered a sign of spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN CALL)

SHEA: But the robin is also the state bird for Wisconsin and Connecticut.

BILL RAPAI: Michigan really should have a state bird that is as unique as our state itself.

SHEA: That's Bill Rapai, executive director of the Kirtland's Warbler Alliance. He's a big advocate for changing the state bird to a rare songbird called the Kirtland's warbler.

RAPAI: Physically, the bird has a lovely yellow breast with a slate gray back.

SHEA: Rapai says the sound of the warbler is one of its best qualities.

RAPAI: I think of the song as sounding like chip, chip, chip, che-wee-wee (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF KIRTLAND'S WARBLER CALL)

SHEA: State Representative Greg Markkanen introduced a bill that, if signed into law, will officially make the Kirtland's warbler Michigan's new state bird.

GREG MARKKANEN: And a lot of people put, you know, a lot of effort into this, to bring this beautiful bird back.

SHEA: The warbler spends winters in the Bahamas and the rest of the year almost exclusively in northern Michigan, where it nests on the ground beneath young jack pine trees. Jack pines rely on fire to reproduce. It melts the resin that holds their pine cones together. So when people started suppressing fires, the habitat changed, and the warbler declined. By the 1980s, the species was on the brink of extinction.

MARKKANEN: I think people will support this bill because, you know, it's a unique Michigan success story, and people need to know about it.

SHEA: It took collaboration from conservation groups, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service to help the warbler make a comeback. They used prescribed fire and replanting, and they set aside huge swaths of jack pine forest as protected Kirtland's warbler habitat. And it's working. In 1987, there were only about 400 warblers left, and now there's at least 4,000, according to the latest DNR survey.

A lot of people in Michigan, especially northern Michigan, take pride in the warbler's recovery. Some even have the bird on their license plate for a small extra fee, which goes towards warbler conservation. But Markkanen says he's surprised that some people aren't so thrilled about the proposed change. They want the robin to remain the state bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN CALL)

MARKKANEN: I've gotten a lot of negative feedback as well. You know, don't touch the robin. And, you know, I'm not dissing the robin at all. Don't get me wrong. I look forward to the robin every spring.

SHEA: But Markkanen says the Kirtland's warbler is just more original.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIRTLAND'S WARBLER CALL)

SHEA: He's pushing for his bill to get to the House floor in the next term, one step closer to the warbler becoming the new state bird and Michigan's alone.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Shea in Interlochen, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick Shea