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South Carolina has an abundance of state symbols

While the Carolina wren is the South Carolina state bird, the wild turkey is the state wild game bird.
Nancy Lee
SC House of Representatives
While the Carolina wren is the South Carolina state bird, the wild turkey is the state wild game bird.

The Palmetto State has so many icons that sometimes there are more than one in a single category

The Carolina wren is widely known as the official South Carolina state bird. Or is it? Actually, there’s another official state bird, the wild turkey. Plus, there’s a third bird of the state: the wood duck. What’s going on here?

The fact is, there is a fairly long list of South Carolina state symbols, and some categories contain mulitiple variations. In this case, the Carolina wren is the state bird, but the wild turkey is the state wild game bird, and the wood duck is the state duck.

The rationale for this, according to Charles Reid, clerk of the state house of representatives, is that sometimes more than one thing is nominated as a state symbol. If one idea doesn’t dominate, sometimes the wording is finessed to allow both articles to be designated, as in the case of two horse types.

“A few years ago we had a bill introduced into the house to make the marsh tacky the state horse,” said Reid. “During the process there was a big conversation, and the bill was amended to not only make the marsh tacky the state horse, but to make the mule the state work animal,” officially the “State Heritage Work Horse.”

“So we had two official state animals pass in one bill.”

Each state symbol is created by law, Reid said. He listed the process by which anything from a seashell to a vegetable can be designated a state symbol.

“The idea has to be submitted as a bill through either the house or the senate. Both the house and the senate have to ultimately agree to it, and that process can take months,” the house clerk said. “Sometimes it takes almost two years for the bodies to agree.

“And then it gets sent to the governor for the governor to consider it. He can choose to sign it into law, or veto it and send it back to the general assembly to see if the general assembly wants to override the veto. It’s just like creating a penalty for possession of an illegal drug or passing a state budget, for that matter.”

The designation of official state symbols is often the idea of a group or individual, Reid said. State Senator Ronnie Cromer proposed the official state color after receiving a call from a third grader at Lexington Elementary School. “She wanted to know why we didn’t have a state color, and I said ‘that’s a good question,’” Cromer recalled.

“And I said ‘what do you think it should be?’ and she said ‘I think it should be blue.’ So I did a little research and I got back in touch with her, and I said ‘Lauren, how about instead of just blue, we make it indigo blue?’ I said ‘that’s pretty much the color of what the state flag was, and indigo was one of those huge cash crops way back in the 1800s in South Carolina. And so let’s tie it in with a little bit of history and let’s make it indigo blue.’ To which she said that would be perfectly all right.”

In addition to three birds and two horses, the state has three dances – the Shag, the Square Dance (the state American Folk Dance) and the Richardson Waltz (the state Waltz), - two state songs - “Carolina” and “South Carolina on my Mind” - two official insects (the Carolina Mantid and the Eastern Tiger Swallow, the state butterfly) - two marine mammals – the bottlenose dolphin and the Norther right whale (the state Migratory Marine Mammal) - two flowers (the goldenrod and the yellow jessamine) and even two beverages – milk and tea (there are more examples, but this list isn’t intended to be exhaustive). According to Cromer, it can be confusing.

“It depends on the individual who is trying to get his or her project passed,” he said, explaining that if multiple candidates are up for the same or a similar symbol, the bills’ sponsors will come up with slightly varying names for their symbols to allow two or more to be designated.

For example, “only one can be the state color,” Cromer continued. “Now you might have somebody to say ‘what is the official South Carolina color for the Upcountry, or the South Carolina color for the Lowcountry?’ And they would split hairs on that to try to get their color in.”

This is what is known in some circles as “politics.” But the public – regardless of age - can sometimes overcome the politics, according to Reid.

“At one point we had a piece of legislature to create the Northern right whale as the official state migratory mammal,” he said. “I believe it passed the house quite easily, and there was a senator who didn’t like the idea. And I believe the child who came up with the idea…convinced the senator to support the idea. That’s an example of how the grassroots and the individual citizens who have an idea or a concern can make a difference.”

Most bills to name official state symbols go through in a single legislative session, the men said. But, though sometimes bills can slide through both houses easily, others can inspire heated and protracted debate.

After all, to some folks, fossils, amphibians and grass can be serious business.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.