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What are State Symbols?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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State symbols are any type of symbol or imagery, including animals, plants, rocks, and even articles of clothing, that are chosen by the residents and legislature of a state within the United States (US) to be representative of that state. These symbols are often indicative or emblematic of the region, usually being animals and plants native to the state or area, and may be other things that are particularly important to a state. Similarly, these state symbols may also be popular aspects of tourism within a state, or some part of typical society within the state that the residents are proud of.

Much like how most countries have flags, plants, and animals that serve as symbols for the nation, the individual states within the US also choose various things to serve as state symbols. While each state is part of the US as a whole, state identity and symbolic independence is an important part of most states' history and culture. Despite the common use of state symbols for maps and other geographic decoration, some states may choose symbols that are not necessarily what everyone else thinks of regarding the state.

For example, though most people usually think of the saguaro cactus when thinking about the state of Arizona, the state tree of Arizona is the palo verde. The state flower for Arizona, however, is the saguaro cactus blossom. Similarly, many people think of the roadrunner when picturing a desert landscape, but the state bird of Arizona is the cactus wren. New Mexico, though, did choose the roadrunner as the official state bird, and both states share the bolo tie as their official state tie or neckwear.

Seven different states all use the northern cardinal as their state bird, ranging from Kentucky to Illinois. State symbols are typically chosen by the legislature of a state, though they can be proposed by residents. They can then be officially recognized through the ratification of a law proposing the potential symbol.

Many states have very specific state symbols as well, which typically indicate plants, animals, or even works of art that are important to the region. For example, the state of Hawaii has a state mammal, a state marine mammal, and a state fish, all found in the ocean around the Hawaiian Islands. The state mammal for Hawaii is the Hawaiian monk seal, the state marine mammal is the humpback whale, and the state fish is the uniquely named humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Rhode Island even has an official state symbol of American folk art: the Charles I. D. Ouff Carousel found at Crescent Park in Rhode Island.

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Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On May 20, 2012

@cardsfan27 - I feel like that states simply model their state symbols off of other states that have picked such symbols.

I understand the need for some state that is on the ocean to have a state fish, but there is not a need for state in the Midwest to have a state fish, when the state has no historical or economic connection to fishing.

However, because other states have a state symbol for a fish, a state that does not have one feels like they need to designate a local fish to fill the state symbol.

I have to also agree that this is way over done in most states, and they need to keep it to simple things, such as a state flag, seal, and things that are connected to the states culture, history, or economy.

By cardsfan27 — On May 19, 2012

@titans62 - I absolutely agree. I live in the state of Illinois and we have a state dance, a state fossil, and a state snack.

The square dance is our state dance, and it is a very common dance that people do not really associate the dance with people in the state.

The state fossil, I personally have only heard of this particular state fossil, because it was picked as the official state fossil and really does not have any other significance besides that.

Also, the state snack is popcorn and what more common of a snack could one pick? There is no significant association with the state behind it and it really makes it seem like there is no point whatsoever in picking something like this.

I really have to wonder exactly why they pick so many state symbols and feel the need to pick the things that they do.

By titans62 — On May 19, 2012

@jcraig - I understand completely how you feel. To be honest I feel that there is really no point in picking such state symbols as a state rock or state fish, when the state I live in is not known for either of the state symbols represented.

However, at the same time I do feel that it is necessary for a state to pick symbols in order to express their uniqueness and difference as a state compared to others. However, too many states pick really unnecessary symbols to create imagery for their state, because they add absolutely nothing besides create more trivia questions for people that study things such as that.

By jcraig — On May 19, 2012

I have to be totally honest I understand how states use certain symbols as images to identify their state, but I really feel like states tend to overdue it as far as these states symbols go.

I really do not understand exactly why so many states need to pick the same state bird, as many have done with the cardinal, when the bird is not a really appropriate symbol of their state.

When this occurs states are merely picking something to fill the state symbol and I feel that this is a bit unnecessary and waste of politicians time and money to pass legislation for unnecessary state symbols that do not add anything to the state's legacy, history, or image.

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