Despite being a nation intimately associated with birdwatching and a love of all things ornithological in general, the United Kingdom, most surprisingly, is one of the very few nations on Earth that does not have an official national bird. True, several years ago a countrywide poll was held to decide which species should serve as our own representative, and revealed as its winner the robin Erithacus rubecula – a friendly, familiar species beloved of gardeners and Christmas card illustrators, and which has traditionally if unofficially occupied that very same role for untold years anyway. However, even this newsworthy poll failed to convince the powers-that-be to elect the robin formally as our nation's feathered ambassador, and so, at least for now, the wait continues. Elsewhere around the world, conversely, is a vast array of national birds, chosen for many different reasons as their respective country's much-loved avian symbol – from its links to its country's beliefs or culture, or as an eyecatching example of its rich biodiversity, to the longstanding admiration that it has inspired among those people sharing its homeland, or even as a means of highlighting its modern-day rarity and need for conservation. So here, to demonstrate this eclectic variety, is a global twitching tour, highlighting some of the most distinctive national birds with fascinating facts explaining why they are so memorable.
Birds of prey have always been greatly admired as symbols of power, strength, intelligence, wisdom, and keen vision, so it is hardly surprising that they have also been popular choices as national birds. Perhaps the most famous example in this capacity is the bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, the national bird of the USA. One of the world's several species of fish-eating eagle, and named after the adult bird's characteristic white-plumed head (it is brown in juveniles), the bald eagle was officially adopted as the USA's feathered representative on 20 June 1782, when the design of the Great Seal of the United States portraying a bald eagle grasping in its talons 13 arrows representing the 13 founding states plus an olive branch signifying peace was formally adopted by the Continental (Philadelphia) Congress, containing delegates from those states.
Another country with a tradition of eagle imagery is Germany, and it too has an eagle as its generally-recognised national bird, but this time the golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos. Indeed, the magnificent plumage and stately poise of this species is so imposing that several other countries have also adopted it in this role, including Afghanistan, Armenia, Egypt, Mexico, and Scotland, although in Egypt and Scotland it is presently still in an unofficial capacity, rather like our robin. Moreover, the African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer, a close Old World relative of the bald eagle and sporting a very striking brown and white plumage, is so well-regarded on its native African continent that it is the official national bird of no fewer than four different nations – Namibia, South Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
One of the most spectacular yet also one of the rarest of all eagles is the Philippine eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. Originally dubbed the monkey-eating eagle as it is large and powerful enough to prey upon sizeable monkeys here, it was subsequently renamed the Philippine eagle and formally installed as its country's national bird on 4 July 1995 by the then president Fidel V. Vamos. This was done in a bid to raise awareness regarding its critically endangered status, a result of longstanding habitat destruction, especially via widespread deforestation. Less than 1,000 individuals are currently thought to exist.
Other powerful birds of prey declared as national birds include the harpy eagle Harpia harpyja in Panama, the white-tailed sea eagle or erne Haliaeetus albicilla (Poland), and the gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus (Iceland). Vultures may not seem the most photogenic or behaviourally refined of species to serve as national birds, yet they too clearly have their supporters, because the griffon vulture Gyps fulvus is the national bird of Serbia, and the mighty-pinioned Andean condor Vultur gryphus serves in this role for a quartet of major South American nations (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador). Smaller raptorial species are not overlooked either, with the peregrine Falco peregrinus representing Angola and the United Arab Emirates, the European kestrel F. tinnunculus Belgium, and the saker falcon F. cherrug Hungary and Mongolia.
As for owls, back in classical times the little owl Athene noctua was the sacred bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, so in modern-day times it is the national bird of Greece. And the Aruba burrowing owl A. cunicularia arubensis represents the Caribbean island of Aruba. Perhaps the strangest of all birds of prey is the secretary bird Sagittarius serpentarius, named after its straggly crest that has been fancifully likened to an untidy sheaf of quills that a secretary from bygone times might have placed behind one of his ears. This bizarre-looking species somewhat incongruously combines a hawk-like body with the lengthy legs of a stork, and is famed for its snake-killing abilities in its native Sudan where it is commemorated as that country's national bird.
Waterbirds are another popular choice for national birds. The mute swan Cygnus olor represents Denmark, and the whooper swan C. cygnus Finland, whereas more colourful feathered symbols include the American flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber for the Bahamas, the scarlet ibis Eudocimus ruber for Trinidad and Tobago, and the magnificent frigate bird Fregata magnificens (noted for the breeding male's vivid scarlet, greatly-inflatable throat pouch) for not only the Pacific island nation of Kiribati but also the twin-island Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Its smaller but no less distinctive relative the great frigate bird F. minor does the honours for Nauru, and on account of their extraordinarily prehistoric appearance when seen high overhead in flight, frigate birds are regularly mistaken by unknowledgeable observers for living pterodactyls!
Their impressive, imposing stature and noble mien no doubt explains why cranes and storks also include several national birds among their assemblage. Most celebrated of these is the blue crane Grus paradisea (aka the paradise or Stanley crane), representing South Africa. Its cultural links to this country include a longstanding tradition among the Xhosa people here, whereby the honour bestowed upon a man who had distinguished himself in battle was to be decorated with blue crane plumes placed in his hair by a chief during a special ceremony known as ukundzabela. Other African nations with a crane as their official symbol include Uganda (its national bird is the grey crowned crane Balearica regulorum) and Nigeria (the black crowned crane B. pavonina). The white stork Ciconia ciconia, a species beloved throughout Europe as the traditional bringer of babies according to fairytales and folklore, is the national bird in both Belarus and Lithuania, whereas the hammerhead or hamerkop Scopus umbretta, an odd stork-like but pelican-related species native to much of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, is the national bird of Gambia, and is widely if erroneously claimed to induce lightning. And speaking of pelicans: the brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis represents the Caribbean nation of St Kitts and Nevis.
Many species of tropical bird have dazzling, multicoloured plumage exhibiting truly extravagant displays of feathered flamboyance, so it is little wonder that some of the most beautiful examples have been adopted by their homelands as national birds. Count Raggi's bird of paradise Paradisaea raggiana, for instance, in which the adult male boasts a fiery explosion of long scarlet plumes with which to tempt and entreat dowdy brown females to mate with him when he dances before them during the breeding season, is the national bird of Papua New Guinea, whose tropical rainforests are home to many of the world's 40-odd bird of paradise species.
Another series of bird species with feathers of the fantastically fabulous kind constitutes the peafowl and pheasants. The blue peacock's famous eye-spotted tail-train when unfurled and held vertically to entice what he hopes are suitably bedazzled peahens is said to owe its distinctive ocellated patterning to the Greek goddess Hera (or Juno in equivalent Roman retellings). Distraught when the messenger god Hermes slew her loyal hundred-eyed watchman Argus at the behest of Zeus, she placed Argus's eyes in the train of the peacock, and adopted it thereafter as her sacred bird. No doubt, therefore, she would be pleased to know that this very familiar species, Pavo cristatus, is honoured as India's national bird. Turning to pheasants, the green pheasant Phasianus versicolor claims comparable prestige in Asia as Japan's national bird, as does the Himalayan monal Lophophorus impejanus for Nepal, the Siamese fireback Lophura diardi for Thailand, and the confusingly-named grey peacock-pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum for Myanmar (the last-mentioned species is so-called because although it is a pheasant, it has spotted plumage whose markings recall the ocelli in the peacock's train).
Parrots were always going to be sought after as national birds by tropical countries fortunate enough to be home to these vividly-plumed perennial favourites among aviculturalists and ornithologists alike, and sure enough, several species have indeed gained that exalted status. The largest, and gaudiest, is undoubtedly the scarlet macaw Ara macao, an animate tricolor of red, blue, and gold, representing Honduras but native to much of northern South America too. Several Caribbean island nations have their very own endemic amazon parrot species – large, brightly-coloured, and found nowhere else – so for reasons of national pride in their avifauna and also to highlight that these species are endangered in many cases, they have duly declared them as their national birds, as with the St Lucia parrot Amazona versicolor for St Lucia, the St Vincent parrot A. guildingii for St Vincent and the Grenadines, and the imperial parrot A. imperialis for Dominica. Nor should we forget the near-threatened Grand Cayman parrot A. leucocephala, the national bird of the Cayman Islands but also found in Cuba and the Bahamas.
The pink-plumaged hoopoe Upupa epops with huge black-and-white wings that bestow upon it the extraordinary guise of a giant butterfly when seen in flight is Israel's national bird, and is intimately linked with biblical lore and legends. According to one such story, hoopoes once bore crests of solid gold, but they were so persecuted by hunters seeking their precious head plumes that they beseeched King Solomon to save them. So in response to their plea, he very kindly transformed their crests into normal feathers, which of course were of no interest to the hunters, and which they have thus borne ever since.
Hoopoes are closely related to kingfishers, rollers, hornbills, and motmots, many of which are brilliantly-plumaged and as a consequence include several national birds among their number, such as the lilac-breasted roller Coracias caudatus for Botswana (and also unofficially for Kenya), the rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros for Malaysia, the turquoise-browed motmot Eumomota superciliosa for El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the grey-headed kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala for Cape Verde. Superficially similar to the Old World hornbills due to their comparably top-heavy beaks, but less closely related to them zoologically speaking, are the New World toucans, with the keel-billed toucan Rhamphastos sulfuratus serving Belize as its national bird.
However, the epitome of tropical birds as far as breathtakingly gorgeous plumage is concerned must surely be the trogons. Again distantly related to kingfishers, rollers, and hoopoes, and native to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, these typically thrush-sized birds resemble living jewels when spot-lit by shafts of bright sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy in their jungle domain. Inevitably, therefore, several of them have been adopted as national birds, such as the Hispaniolan trogon Priotelus roseigaster in Haiti, the Cuban trogon P. temnurus in Cuba itself, and the bar-tailed trogon Apaloderma vittatum in Malawi. However, the trogon par excellence – indeed, a leading contender for the world's most beautiful species of bird – is the aptly-named resplendent quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno of Guatemala, whose history, both natural and national, makes fascinating reading.
According to the ancient traditions of the Aztec nation, which formerly inhabited what is today Mexico (and which in turn formerly included present-day Guatemala within its borders), one of their principal deities, the sky god Quetzalcoatl, would sometimes appear to them in the form of a great airborne feathered serpent with bright emerald-coloured plumes. Today, it is believed that this curious legend arose from real-life observations by the Aztecs of the resplendent quetzal, because during the breeding season the green-plumaged male, which is normally no more than 1 ft long, grows a pair of exceptionally lengthy, elongate tail plumes, also green, but each measuring up to 3 ft long – and when it flies, these two streamer-like feathers extend horizontally behind it and undulate, so that it bears more than a passing resemblance to an extraordinary plumed snake in flight. Such a famous bird of legend has made an immense cultural impact upon Guatemala, one of several Central American countries where this spectacular bird exists (as well as in present-day Mexico) – so much so, in fact, that not only is it Guatemala's national bird but it has given its name to this country's currency too (100 centavos = 1 quetzal since the year 1925), as well as appearing upon both its national flag and its official coat of arms, and also upon its bank notes and many of its postage stamps.
Also deserving of mention here is a veritable 'quetzal in miniature' that is itself a national bird – the doctor bird Trochilus polytmus, hailing from Jamaica. Indigenous to that island nation, this iridescent green-plumaged hummingbird is characterised by the male's pair of extremely long ribbon-like tail feathers, which make a humming sound as it flies. There is speculation that because these feathers resemble the long silk tail-coats worn by doctors in olden days, this is why the species is called the doctor bird.
Of course, not all national birds are chosen for their dramatic appearance or links to mythology. Quite a few have been specifically selected for their basic 'everyman' appeal and popularity, familiar to everyone and loved by all. Italy has as its national bird the Italian sparrow, a cheeky little upstart that is abundant and instantly recognisable everywhere here. Long the subject of controversy as to its precise taxonomic status because it appears intermediate in form between the Spanish sparrow Passer hispaniolensis and the house sparrow P. domesticus, it was formerly thought to be a hybrid of these two. Nowadays, however, it is often deemed to be a separate, valid species in its own right, albeit one that may indeed have originated via hybridisation between the two afore-mentioned species, and has been dubbed P. italiae, because this is where it predominantly occurs.
Other well known but visually modest avian groups with national birds among their membership are the wagtails (the white wagtail Motacilla alba being Latvia's national bird), the crows (Bhutan's is the common raven Corvus corax), swallows (the European or barn swallow Hirundo rustica represents both Austria and Estonia), thrushes (the common blackbird Turdus merula for Sweden, the redwing T. iliacus for Turkey), doves (mourning dove Zenaida macroura for the British Virgin Islands, zenaida dove Z. aurita for Anguilla, Grenada dove Leptotila wellsi for Grenada), and finches (Sinai rosefinch Carpodacus synoicus for Jordan).
But perhaps the last word on national birds should be reserved for the most poignant example – namely, the species that represents the Mascarene nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. For alone of all such birds, it is no longer in existence, having been slaughtered for its meat more than three centuries ago, only for it afterwards to become an icon in its former island homeland. Today, its instantly recognisable form can be seen everywhere in Mauritius – decorating picture postcards, appearing in advertisements, reproduced as toys of every conceivable composition, and serving as the number one choice for countless visually-inspired souvenirs. And the name of this extinct, exterminated superstar? What else could it be? Raphus cucullatus – the dodo.