It’s always dicey trying to predict what the North Carolina General Assembly is going to do, especially as summer approaches. As the temperatures rise outdoors, tempers also can flare up indoors in the legislative chambers.

There is a very good chance, however, that three coastal critters – the osprey, the loggerhead sea turtle and the bottlenose dolphin – will be become official state symbols before the legislature adjourns. (If not, we’ll push on and try, try again in the 2020 session.)

Two of the bills were sponsored by State Representatives Pat McElraft, R-Emerald Isle, of Carteret County, and Frank Iler, R-Shallotte, of Brunswick County.

H.B. 39 seeks to “adopt the Osprey as the official raptor of the State of North Carolina.” H.B. 169 calls for the Loggerhead Sea Turtle to be designated as the state’s “official saltwater reptile.” (Rep. Carson Smith, R-Hampstead, of Pender County, is also listed as a primary sponsor of H.B. 169).

Additionally, H.B. 598 advocates that the bottlenose dolphin become North Carolina’s “state marine mammal.” The proposal’s primary sponsors are: Rep. Holly Grange, R-Wilmington, of New Hanover County; and Bobby Hanig, R-Powells Point, of Currituck County.

This is a distinguished trio of treasured living creatures that are near and dear to residents and visitors to the Crystal Coast. Certainly, each is deserving of the lofty status as “state symbols” within the annals and general statutes of North Carolina.

The “Osprey Bill” got off to a fast start. It passed unanimously in the state House of Representatives on March 27. The vote was 111-0.

Magnificent in flight, the osprey has a wingspan that measures up to 6 feet. Ospreys have earned the reputation as “Fishermen of the Seas” because they are the only raptors that plunge into water feet first at a speed of 30 miles per hour or greater to grasp fish with their specially equipped talons.

Ospreys are diurnal birds of prey that hunt during daylight hours, using their keen eyesight to focus on locating fish just below the surface of the water. Ospreys are unique among North American raptors, feeding almost exclusively on live fish with a diet that includes about 80 different species of saltwater and freshwater fish.

Ospreys are one of the most easily observed birds of prey, because they use brush, driftwood, sticks, twigs and other debris to build large, bulky nests in dead trees along waterways or in man-made structures over open water, such as channel markers.

The “Loggerhead Bill,” with 13 co-sponsors, has bipartisan support. The loggerhead is the most common sea turtle on the North Carolina coast, capable of living 50 or more years and growing up to 4 feet in length and weighing more than 250 pounds. The Ocean Conservancy reports that the loggerhead is so named because of its “massive head, as big and sturdy as a log. Its strong jaws can crunch through the hard shells of crustaceans and mollusks.”

These turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until about age 35. Loggerheads will mate in coastal regions about every two or three years, and females make their way back to the exact beach where they were born, also known as their “natal” beach.

The NC Sea Turtle Project, run by the Division of Wildlife Management, says that loggerheads typically begin their nesting season on North Carolina’s beaches in May. “Each nest, or clutch, contains approximately 120 eggs roughly the size of a ping pong ball. The female will crawl ashore and dig a chamber in the sand about 1-2 feet deep. Once the eggs are deposited, she covers them up with sand; the nest is completely camouflaged.”

“A female turtle will return every two weeks or so to lay another clutch of eggs. She may lay between four to seven clutches in one season. Once laid, the eggs incubate for approximately 60 days, but nests laid early in the season could take up to 100 days, to hatch or boil.”

The “Bottlenose Dolphin Bill” cleared the House on April 25. The vote was unanimous, 108-0.

The bill states: “Bottlenose dolphins are marine mammals that are abundant along North Carolina’s coastline, and with their short, thick beak and a curved mouth, they appear to be always smiling. Bottlenose dolphins are usually gray in color and can range from 6 to 13 feet long. They are social animals that travel in groups of 10-15, called pods.”

Sleek and streamlined, bottlenose dolphins can sprint at a speed approaching 20 miles per hour, but they can also endure 100-mile swims each day, at a cruising speed between 3-7 miles per hour. They will surface to breathe two or three times a minute.

The Ocean Conservancy reports that these dolphins possess “an intricate system for communicating called echolocation, which uses the reflection of sound to track its prey, usually bottom-dwelling fish as well as shrimp and squid. A female dolphin and her calf typically stay together for three to six years.

Existing State Symbols Should Fear Not

Consideration being given to the adoption of the osprey, loggerhead sea turtle and bottlenose dolphin as new state symbols poses absolutely no threat whatsoever to species that have already been “enshrined” as official state critters.

For example, proposing the osprey as the “official state raptor” presents no danger to the cardinal, which is the “official state bird.”

Steven Case retired about a year ago as senior reference librarian with the State Library of North Carolina. His essays about the “state symbols” have become official postings on the state library’s NCPedia website.

The legislature voted in the cardinal as state bird in 1943. It was the “people’s choice” in a contest held by the North Carolina Bird Club. The dove came in second, Case said.

The first official state bird, however, was selected in 1933, when the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs recommended the Carolina chickadee as the official state bird,” Case reported.

“Just a week later, the resolution was repealed. The chickadee’s nickname – the tomtit – was considered too undignified, and legislators balked at the idea that North Carolina might become known as the ‘Tomtit State.’” (Yes, that would have been quite dreadful.)

Similarly, suggesting the loggerhead turtle become the “official state saltwater reptile” does not jeopardize the eastern box turtle’s status as the “official state reptile.”

Eastern box turtles can be found everywhere in North Carolina, but they are rarely found along the Outer Banks. They are not very big, growing up to six inches in length. The box turtle was named for its ability to completely “box up” inside its shell when it feels threatened.

Case wrote: The eastern box turtle “was sponsored in 1979 by Rep. Chris Barker of New Bern. At the time, he claimed the turtle was the best representative to become the official reptile of North Carolina because it’s … the ultimate example of patience and North Carolina’s unrelenting pursuit of goals.”

The bill came under considerable debate, however. Case reported: “Alligators, lizards and snakes were proposed as alternatives by various representatives, but the bill eventually passed in the House with a vote of 102 to 4.”

To help sway state senators, a 12-year-old boy from Cary brought two of his seven pet box turtles to share with the legislators. The bill passed in the Senate with little fanfare, although one senator voted no “because he didn’t think the turtle was a good representation of North Carolina’s progressiveness,” Case wrote.

The bill included a cleverly written preamble: “The turtle, which at a superficial glance appears to be a mundane and uninteresting creature, is actually a most fascinating creature. The turtle watches undisturbed as countless generations of faster hares run by to quick oblivion.”

Choosing the bottlenose dolphin as the “official state marine mammal,” likewise presents no threat to the existing “official state mammal,” which is the gray squirrel.

Found in all 100 counties within North Carolina, the gray squirrel was sponsored in 1969 by Rep. Basil Barr of Ashe County. He characterized the small mammal as “courageous and thrifty.” Legislators agreed, as the bill experienced no serious opposition in either chamber, Case stated.

“During the autumn, squirrels ‘scatter hoard’ nuts, providing an ongoing means of reforestation, since many of the nuts they bury remain uneaten, and so have a chance to germinate.”

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