Colorado State Emblems
Hugh Kingery reports on all of Colorado’s state emblems.
Our neighbor recently asked why Colorado picked the Lark Bunting as its state bird. She thought no one ever sees one. Actually, they occur abundantly in the state – on the plains, in summer. The Breeding Bird Atlas rated them as the fourth most numerous breeder in the state. The Legislature didn’t plan it this way, but in June and July Colorado Columbines decorate the high country and Lark Buntings decorate the plains landscape – visually and vocally.
The Legislature adopted this array of symbols, it said in one bill, “to demonstrate our state character and pride.”
Lark Buntings stage spectacular migrations as flocks of hundreds and hundreds move north, the males singing constantly as they move. As they go north, groups break off to breeding sites where they commence their communal flight displays.
Buntings “lark.” Because the plains lack trees for perches, courting males sing on the wing (“larking”), an entrancing spectacle. (Other plains birds also lark: Longspurs, Horned Larks, Cassin’s Sparrows, Meadowlarks.)
The female builds the nest on the ground with grasses, next to a forb or shrub. She needs to position it so as to absorb solar radiation and to avoid cold north winds. Young hatch by late May and fledge in July. Though they breed all over the plains, their numbers wax and wane over the years and from place to place.
In the fall, they migrate to the southwestern U.S. and the males assume brown plumage like females, though they retain their white wing bars. Though still common, Lark Buntings (like other grassland birds) have, declined: between 1966 and 2003, by 2.5% per year in Colorado.
As with several Colorado state critters, this designation resulted from a petition to the Legislature by school children (for the Lark Bunting, kids from Fort Collins).
The striking white and blue Colorado Columbine grows 2-4 feet tall. It has five white petals with spurs and 5 blue sepals in contrast. Our columbines thrive in moist aspen forests and montane ravines, where the sepals acquire a rich deep blue and in alpine rockslides where they become whiter.
On Pikes Peak in 1820, mountain climber Edwin James encountered this columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), a Colorado endemic. (The Latin word “aquila” means “Eagle” and refers to the claw-like spurs at the base of the flower. “Endemic” means found only in this place.)
After winning the vote of Colorado’s school children, it became the official state flower of Colorado in 1899. Colorado declares that the blue sepals symbolize the sky, the white cups represent snow, and the yellow center stands for Colorado’s gold mining history (though the state waited until 2004 to adopt a state rock – not gold but rather Yule Marble). The General Assembly made it illegal to uproot the flower on public lands and limits gathering blossoms and buds. On private land, it allows no picking at all except with the consent of the landowner
Bighorn Sheep travel the high peaks; they drop to lower elevations in winter. Named for their massive, curling horns (which can grow to 50 inches in length) and known for their agility and perfect balance, they live only in the Rockies (usually above the timberline) in extremely rugged terrain. They don’t shed their horns annually like deer and elk. Rather the horns grow in length and circumference throughout the sheep’s life (together the two horns can weigh nearly 30 pounds).
Though very social, Bighorns separate into two groups. Mature rams stay in one group while ewes, lambs, and young rams congregate separately (young rams stay with the “nursery group” until 2-3 years of age). The groups join during mating season (“rut”) from mid-November through December and sometimes briefly in the spring. Bands of rams have a social hierarchy established by body and horn size. Dramatic head-butting occurs between mature rams to determine leadership and dominance, but once they establish a hierarchy, rams live in the same group with little further conflict (normal life span is 10-12 years).
Fewer than 45,000 bighorn sheep exist, scattered through the western United States and Canada. They exist in small, isolated herds and have Endangered status under the Endangered Species Act.
Western Painted Turtles, on their inner shells, sport a bright red pattern that contrasts with the dark green back shell (or carapace). They have bright yellow horizontal stripes on their heads and necks, with subtle yellowish stripes on the carapace.
They live in ponds with muddy bottoms and slow-flowing streams that have vegetation to attract their prey. These cold-blooded animals must bask in the sun for thermoregulation – which not only warms them but helps to get rid of leeches (which don’t like the sun). They spend their days basking, searching for food, and basking again when they cool down. At night, they sleep at the bottom of their lake or stream. These reptiles hunt by flushing prey out of the underwater vegetation in lakes, rivers, and ponds. They eat aquatic insects, spiders, caterpillars, worms, dead fish, and some vegetation – seeds, duckweed, and algae.
Mating happens as temperatures rise, between March and May. Males become sexually mature when 8–9 years old; females normally need 10–11 years to reach sexual maturity. Males often fight aggressively with other males over females when looking for a mate. She lays 4-11 eggs three inches under the pond bottom. The eggs hatch in 72-80 days and the hatchlings, at birth, can fully take care of themselves. Hatchling sex depends on incubation temperature: temperatures from 21-23 degrees C produce only males, and those above 30 degrees generate only females.
To hibernate in winter these turtles dig a shallow hole in the bottom of their pond. They survive without oxygen until spring temperatures rise.
The Western Painted Turtle became the state reptile due to the efforts of Jay Baichi’s 4th grade class, which researched Colorado reptiles and deemed this turtle the most representative of Colorado reptiles. The 4th graders began to promote its adoption as Colorado’s reptile in 2007, completed the necessary legal steps, and the governor signed HB 08-1017 on March 18, 2008, naming the Western Painted Turtle as Colorado’s state reptile.
Greenback Cutthroat Trout, native to the South Platte Basin, now live in montane streams in the Arkansas and South Platte drainages. Originally a small trout, it rarely exceeded a pound when mature. Now they can grow up to 18 inches. With fair-sized black spots, the Greenback sport a back of deep olivaceous green. To spawn, it swims up to the heads of streams, even into the alpine zone, looking for the coldest water. Carnivores, these trout feed on insects, larvae, crustaceans, worms, and other small aquatic organisms. They also catch smaller fish and sometimes eat fish eggs. They have keen vision which enables them to notice moving figures in the water or humans on the stream bank.
Due to artificial stocking and interbreeding with other cutthroats, the original strain of greenbacks has probably disappeared. Two other subspecies occur in the state, one in the Colorado River basin and one in the Rio Grande basin. Deemed Endangered 45 years ago, Cutthroats have recovered enough for down-listing to Threatened status.
Western Tiger Salamanders usually measure 6-8 inches but can become as long as 14 inches. They have dark gray, brown, or black bodies with broad yellow stripes. They live near vernal pools (seasonal pools of freshwater), ponds, and slow-moving streams. and nearby damp areas, such as damp forest floors where they can burrow easily into the soil. They can also occupy abandoned mammal and invertebrate burrows – particularly mole holes and sometimes even prairie dog holes. Unlike other salamanders, tiger salamanders can dig their own burrows. Primarily terrestrial as adults, the juvenile larvae have external gills and live an entirely aquatic life.
Mainly nocturnal, efficient, and opportunistic feeders, they eat anything they can catch, including various insects, slugs, and earthworms. Larvae feed on small crustaceans and insect larvae.
Their secretive nature and burrowing habit make them hard to spot. They spend long periods of time burrowed underground—in fact, they spend most of the year below the surface, which allows them to escape high temperatures. But after heavy rains, these salamanders may emerge and walk around on wet ground. Predators include badgers, snakes, bobcats, and owls. They cannot exist in ponds with trout – which prey on them, their eggs, and larvae.
Tiger salamanders migrate to breeding ponds in late winter or early spring. They lay eggs in vernal pools where predatory fish can’t exist. One to two days after courtship, a female lays up to a hundred eggs, which hatch about four weeks later. Larvae stay in the pond until they become adults, usually within two and a half to five months. Tiger salamanders can live for 14 years or more.
Tiger Salamander have a stable population. Wetland loss, specifically vernal pools, poses their greatest threat. As wetlands are filled in and destroyed, tiger salamanders must search longer and farther to find good breeding sites.
The Colorado Hairstreak depends on Gambel Oak as a favorite roost for adults and the usual food source for caterpillars. To identify this hairstreak, look for the slender “tail” protruding from the hind wings and by their beautiful, distinctive coloration. Their backs gleam with iridescent blue and black, spotted with 6-8 orange spots; underneath, the gray wings have one black-centered orange spot near the tail.
They feed on tree sap, raindrops, sweet liquid that comes out of oak insect galls, and aphid honeydew. In late summer they lay single eggs on oak twigs. Colorado Hairstreaks occur on both sides of the Continental Divide, between 6,500 and 7,500 feet. Active only from late July into August, it requires these careful searching to see inconspicuous hairstreaks.
The Colorado Hairstreak Butterfly achieved the status of official state insect in 1996 due to steady lobbying of 4th graders from Wheeling Elementary in Aurora, Colorado (led by teacher Melinda Terry).
Our state tree, the magnificent Colorado Blue Spruce, grows into a stately, majestic, symmetrical form with a beautiful silver-blue color. It can grow up to 100 feet tall, and with enough space, forms a perfect conical triangle. Most trees have blue needles, a few have green ones. A few sport a silver color, caused by a bloom on the needles which wears off as the season progresses. They grow along foothills streams beside willows, alder, and birch.
First described from Pikes Peak in 1862 by botanist C.C. Parry, it has become widely planted nationwide. Although school children of the state voted to name it as state tree on Arbor Day in 1892, it took the Legislature until 1939 to adopt it.
Claret Cup Cactus grows in varied habitats from low, dry land to rocky slopes and mountain woodlands from 4.900-9,850 feet. One to twelve plants grow in mounds of spiny, cylindrical stems that form a clump sometimes several feet wide. It flowers from April to June, with fruits maturing 2-3 months later. The bright scarlet flowers have a funnel shape almost 3 inches wide. At the center of the corolla it has a thick nectar chamber and many thready pink stamens.
The tips of the petals, round and stiff, permit their primary pollinators, hummingbirds, to perch on it as they poke into the long-tubed shaped flowers with their long bills. This cactus produces edible juicy and spiny fruit, colored green, pink, or red.
The efforts of four girls from Douglas County Girl Scout Troop 2518 in Castle Rock led to this designation in 2014.
Blue Grama, native to the delicate prairies of central North America, has importance because its dense, shallow root mass holds down the soil. (Denser soil keeps dirt from blowing away as it did during the 1930’s Dust Bowl). It, along with Buffalo Grass, form the short-grass prairie that originally covered most of eastern Colorado. If plowed under or otherwise disturbed, Blue Grama can take as long as 50 years to re-establish itself.
The grasslands of North America began to form about 20 million years ago. In some areas up to 99 percent of the prairie has been destroyed in just the last 125-150 years, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth. Colorado designated it as the state grass to help inform and to educate citizens and tourists about the importance of our grasslands.
In our yards we can plant natural gardens of Blue Grama and Buffalo Grass to encourage native pollinators and other native insects. Denver Audubon founder Lois Webster planted her yard in Aurora with these two grasses.
* Animal Diversity Web. 2021. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.
* Animals Network Editors. (2017). Painted Turtle. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://animals.net/
* Green, William S. 1937. Colorado Trout. Colo. Mus. Of Natural History.
* Hammerson, Geoffrey. 1999. Amphibians and Reptiles in Colorado. Univ. Press of Colorado and Colo. Div. of Wildlife.
* Kingery, Hugh E. 1992. “Lark Bunting,” in the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas (H. E. Kingery, ed.). Colo. Breeding Bird Atlas Partnership and Colo. Div. of Wildlife.
* More, Robert E. 1943. Colorado Evergreens. Univ. of Denver Press.
* National Wildlife Federation. 2021.
* Pesman, M. Walter. 1987. Denver Botanic Gardens. Pruett Publishing Co., Boulder.
* State Symbols. USA. 2021.
* Twing, Thomas F. 1990. A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. Little, Brown, and Co.