How the Goldfinch Became Iowa's State Bird

In February 1926, Iowa Ornithologists' Union (IOU) president Walter Rosene noted in a letter to members that Nebraska had recently named a state bird. He wrote that "if each state has its state flower, why should we not have a state bird? It would be interesting to hear from all members in regard to this matter, and I would welcome letters offering suggestions."

Two months later, he wrote that a few suggestions had been received but not enough to reach a consensus. Margo Frankel from Des Moines suggested that the group "choose an all-year-round bird for Iowa- downy woodpecker or chickadee." Althea Sherman of National suggested the goldfinch as "a beautiful bird, easily recognized by everyone. It is of common occurrence in most parts of our state throughout the whole year." Rosene suggested more nominations for discussion at the spring meeting in Atlantic.

No further action was taken on this matter until June 1931 when Dr. F.L.R. Roberts, in a president's letter to the membership, wrote that "there is a popular demand for a state bird, and it is appropriate that we should be active in choosing one." He then appointed a committee, consisting of two former IOU presidents, Walter Bennett and Walter Rosene, to prepare recommendations to be presented at the next annual meeting.

The next spring at the banquet, members prepared a list of birds for consideration. After much debate, the goldfinch was selected and was unanimously voted as the IOU' s choice for state bird. It was chosen because it was commonly known and found in the state year-round.

Former IOU president Arthur Palas was chosen as chair of a committee to present this petition to the Iowa Legislature in January 1933. Representative J. Wilbur Dole later recalled that Mr. Palas approached him during the first week of March to present this matter. Mr. Palas, it seems, had forgotten his assignment.

Several members of the legislature approached Representative Dole and asked why such birds as the robin, bluebird, or quail should not be considered. He stated that other states had already selected those and no one pressed the matter further. Others asked why Iowa even needed a state bird. He replied that there were only four other states that did not have a state bird. This answer seemed to satisfy their queries.

On March 21, 1933, Dole called up the resolution and spoke in favor of its passage. It passed unanimously by voice vote. He made the only speech in support of the resolution; none was made in opposition. Similar action was taken in the Senate.

The text of the resolution adopted by the Iowa Legislature is as follows:

     Whereas, the twenty-sixth General Assembly of the state of Iowa, in the year 1897, by concurrent resolution, adopted the wild rose as the state flower of Iowa, the record of which is duly recorded in Senate Journal, pages 1124 and 1164 and in House Journal, page 10235; and
     Whereas, many states have not only adopted certain named flowers as their state flower but have also adopted certain named birds as their state birds, and
     Whereas, the Iowa Ornithologists' Union, an association comprising students and the lovers of birds, residing within our state, at their annual meeting held in Des Moines, in May 1932, by resolution and vote designated the Eastern Goldfinch as their choice for a state bird and recommended that said Eastern Goldfinch be adopted as the official state bird of Iowa, therefore
     Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring, that the Eastern Goldfinch, Spinus tristis tristis, is hereby designated and shall hereafter be officially known as the state bird of Iowa.

A revealing glimpse of how our perceptions of birds have changed can be seen by reading the byline and story in the March 27, 1933 Des Moines Register article about Iowa's new state bird. It read, "Goldfinch, Iowa's Official Bird, Is an Aid to Farmer." Further into the story, it stated that "the goldfinch is valuable to farmers because of the great quantity of weed seed they consume during a season and the war they wage upon cankerworms, plant lice, small grasshoppers, and beetles." How many people view goldfinches, or birds in general, in this manner now?

Much of the information for this article came from a booklet entitled "The Goldfinch: Official Iowa Bird," written by Josephine Baumgarter and Mabel Goshorn Tate, the editors of the Des Moines Audubon Society's newsletter and published on May 29, 1945. J. Wilbur Dole's account of the events is included in a letter to the editors of the newsletter.