The familiar cardinal is a bird many people associate with winter. That’s understandable, as the scarlet plumage of male cardinals certainly stands out against a snowy wintry background.

Here in the mountains and in other places, the cardinal is also often seen as a comforting symbol representing a loved one who has passed.

Hence the phrase, “cardinals appear when angels are near.”

The cardinal is North Carolina’s State Bird, and is sometimes literally referred to as the “state’’ bird – six other states have also laid claim to the cardinal as their avian representative.

But for a time that wasn’t the case, and therein lies a tale.

In 1933 the North Carolina General Assembly, with prodding from the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs, passed Resolution 51, designating the Carolina Chickadee as North Carolina’s official fowl.

Lew Powell relates the tale in a post from March 8, 2010 at North Carolina Miscellany, a blog produced, edited and maintained by the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Powell tells the tale of Sen. John Sprunt Hill singing out “chickadee, chickadee, chickadee-dee-dee” from his desk in the Senate chamber as he lobbied for the chickadee as the state bird. 

North Carolina was one of only five states without an official bird. The Carolina chickadee, which had the backing of the Women’s Club, had also won a statewide newspaper poll.

Sen. George McNeill displayed a stuffed chickadee he’d retrieved from the state museum as part of the lobbying push, which proved successful. The House and Senate both conferred the honor on the bird.

Then the press swung into action.

Turns out the Carolina chickadee is a member of the titmouse family and is also called a tomtit in some circles.

Editors around the state quickly put two and two together and rebranded the General Assembly the “Tomtit Legislature.” Leaders of industry and civic organizations were soon staring down the barrel of being representatives not of the Tar Heel state but the Tomtit state.

An article in the Burlington Daily Times-News on May 12, 1933 can likely be judged as representative:

“It looked harmless enough. Not all the members seemed to know that the bird with the high-sounding name of chickadee as nothing else than the plebeian little tomtit, but the good ladies – that is the Federation of Women’s Clubs – wanted the bill put through, and Senator John Sprunt Hill, the senatorial encyclopedia, attested to the fact that the chickadee was really a fine little fellow, bright-hued, tuneful and acrobatic. Not only that, but he is a friend of the farmer and lives off insects and whatnots…

“But, without knowing it, the legislature seemed to have started another controversy, one of those inimitable Tar Heel scraps. There are many people in North Carolina who apparently think that the ladies and legislature made an unhappy choice. These objectors want a bird that they can recognize him or her, as the case may be. Besides, they fear that North Carolina may be held up to ridicule by designating itself the Tomtit State…

“These folks think that the sparrow would have been a better choice… but the women are set in their minds on the Tomtit, and Tomtit it shall remain until some such time as a future general assembly takes a notion to take the Tomtit from the throne.”

It didn’t actually take a future general assembly.

After 10 merciless days of editorial abuse, the House and Senate, with no fanfare, repealed the chickadee.

Ten years later, following a contest initiated by the North Carolina Bird Club to pick a state bird, the cardinal emerged as the new and lasting avian symbol of The Old North State.

School children, birding and wildlife clubs publicized a competition that saw 23,000 votes cast, with the cardinal taking 5,000 to top a field of 26 hopefuls that included the dove (second place with 3,395 votes), the wild turkey and the red-winged blackbird.