Shadley: Our State Bird of Prey Should Not Be the Golden Eagle


Kevin Cody

A bird of prey looking over the frozen Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island. Image was taken on Feb. 7, 2022. (Photo by Kevin Cody | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


When I chose to move to Utah, I labored for hours figuring out what made this state unique. How could I know what makes Utah different? To find out, I did what everyone does. I turned to Utah’s state symbols, and I figured it out instantly. My college experience would consist of long nights spent at the state railroad museum overindulging on Spanish sweet onions, the state vegetable, cooked in a Dutch oven, the state cooking pot. And, some nights, we’d turn back the clock and eat sugar beets, the state historic vegetable, to switch things up. I couldn’t wait.

But now, the Utah State Legislature has proposed adding another state symbol. S.B. 116 would designate the golden eagle as Utah’s state bird of prey. However, this bill has not received enough scrutiny, especially when it makes such an important decision that affects all of us. Could you imagine if our state vegetable was a red onion instead? I don’t even like to think about it.

The legislature must carefully weigh all of the options for a state bird of prey and choose the one that best fits Utah. Otherwise, we might misrepresent our state, something we cannot afford to do. Especially when other states always represent themselves accurately. Like Wyoming, which boasts the state motto of “Equal Rights,” an apt description of how that state negotiates complex social issues.

Choosing the State Bird of Prey Is Not as Easy as It Seems

Roughly 29 species of raptors call Utah home. These birds of prey live in every corner of the state, with unique habits, communities, lifestyles and roles in the ecosystem. Yet, the Utah State Legislature thinks we ought to select only one of them to represent Utah. But each of the 29 raptors plays an integral role in the larger ecosystem. How then, can we decide which individual species deserves the privilege and attention that comes with holding the title of the state bird of prey?

That decision has been left up to the legislature. As a diverse, representative group of Utahns, they know best what each species brings to the table, and how some are more valuable than others. The legislature feels very comfortable making these judgment calls. Yet, in this instance, they seem to have overlooked the arguments in favor of less prominent raptor species. Something I would never expect them to do.

Sen. Mike McKell, the sponsor of the bill, argues that the golden eagle is a bird that everyone in Utah can resonate with. Native Americans, conservationists and hunters all respect golden eagles. While that may be true, those groups don’t exclusively respect golden eagles. Other raptors, while not as commonly talked about as the golden eagle, play important roles in our ecosystems.

Turkey vultures search the land for dead animals to eat. By consuming those remains, they clean up the environment and reduce the spread of disease. Without scavengers, our ecosystems would be at a greater risk of collapse.

Burrowing owls are another species of raptor with a vital role in our ecosystems. They serve as important predators, feeding on rodents, reptiles, fish and other small animals. However, burrowing owls tend to mate in monogamous pairs, so they might not be a great representative of our state.

We Shouldn’t Privilege the Golden Eagle

There’s a case to be made for every species of raptor to serve as our state bird of prey. Still, the legislature has decided, almost unanimously, that the golden eagle deserves to hold that title. Eagles have dominated as the most well-known and important raptors for a long time. They’re the classic bird of American iconography. And they’re one of the most common birds of prey in Utah. They’re one of the few species of animals that, when threatened with extinction, the United States chose to meaningfully protect. They’ve got enough going for them. If we must privilege a bird of prey, it should be one of the equally important, but less recognized raptors.

I love the state symbols as much as anybody. I came to Utah in large part because the state vegetable is the Spanish sweet onion. But I cannot get behind S.B. 116. Under no circumstances can we allow the state legislature to make these wildly important decisions without considering how it will affect all species of raptors here in Utah. They were elected, not to serve some species of raptors, but all. Preferential treatment for the golden eagle is reprehensible and must be condemned.


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