Why New Jersey Should Ditch the Goldfinch for a Better State Bird

Murphy's executive order changing our state bird to the middle finger was an April Fools' joke. But he was right to say our symbols should reflect NJ culture.

Cartoon illustration of people watching a goldfinch sadly exit a doorway

Illustration by Gary Hovland

Now that spring is around the corner, the state Legislature should take time to find a new official bird for New Jersey. After all, it was that body who anointed the American Goldfinch back in 1935 (it was called the Eastern Goldfinch in those days), and for one reason only: The goldfinch was the symbol of the New Jersey Audubon Society.  

Why find a new state bird? None other than Governor Phil Murphy suggested last April 1 that the time had come for a change. He tweeted that “it is important for state symbols to reflect New Jersey’s culture and values,” and, since “New Jersey drivers are famous for their skills, enthusiasm and expressive hand gestures,” it was time to switch the state bird from a goldfinch to the middle finger (also known as the Jersey salute). Although Murphy’s tweet was an April Fool’s joke, he got the first part right. New Jersey’s symbols should reflect the state. The goldfinch doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever did.

First of all, the goldfinch is not particularly emblematic of the Garden State. It is at least a part-time resident of all lower 48 states—and the official bird of two, Iowa and Washington, in addition to New Jersey.      

While most folks associate the bird with a bright, canary-yellow hue, only males have that plumage, and only during breeding season, in spring and early summer. The rest of the year, both males and females lean toward the drab side. 

Interestingly, state legislators were not particularly thrilled when they made their choice 88 years ago. When Senator Dryden Kuser of Somerset first proposed the idea, he was greeted with whistling from spectators and some colleagues. Although Kuser said that it was “a very pretty bird,” Senator Blase Cole of Sussex suggested instead the crow, vulture, sparrow or pigeon, “for at least we see them once in a while.”

New Jersey Audubon weighed in, explaining that the goldfinch was well-known in bird-study circles, a year-round resident, and a beneficial consumer of weeds and insects. That apparently did the trick, and the bill became law, despite a lack of enthusiasm from the state press corps. 

One newspaper columnist observed, “I thought it was just another name for the same old bull (finch) that has been coming out of Trenton for years.” Another wrote,“No self-respecting bird would accept honors from the Legislature without questioning the distinction involved.” 

Postscript: New Jersey Audubon dropped the goldfinch as its emblematic bird years ago. (It’s now the dynamic and endangered northern harrier.)

There are other worthy candidates for a state bird—from the Jersey Shore’s laughing gull to the peregrine falcon of the Palisades. Either would be preferable to a dinky little bird or half a peace sign. 

Jim Wright is the author of the upcoming Screech Owl Companion. He is the birding columnist for The Record in North Jersey.

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