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Written by guest blogger Spencer Wilken
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has not had a mascot for nearly 17 years.
However, a growing number of students, faculty, community members and alumni have come out in support of a unique proposal that is anything but the “standard mascot fare”: an unmistakable, showy bird known for hanging around bodies of water.
How did the college campus get into this “missing mascot” situation?
There have been considerable shifts in sports branding over the last few decades. Athletic departments and sports teams across the nation are ever-more-frequently faced with the decision to retire Native American themed mascots. Many school boards acknowledge the issues that such symbols cause, and retire their mascot on their own volition. In other cases, such as for schools in New York and Maine, state educational boards step in and mandate districts remove offensive imagery or risk losing state funding. Others still, like the University of Illinois, were one of just under 20 colleges impacted by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) 2005 ban on the use of “offensive and harmful” imagery in post-season tournaments. Unlike the majority of the impacted colleges, the University of Illinois decided against any plans for mascot replacement or a team name change. As the student leading the campaign to get a new mascot for the University of Illinois, I can attest that such a state is unsustainable.
Why? Simply put, nature abhors a vacuum.
Without a formal replacement, a fan-sponsored lookalike has lingered to this day, complete with the amalgam of non-authentic Native American attire and “war paint” that was unequivocally disavowed by the Peoria tribe long before the NCAA ban took place. Chants of “Chief” still hollowly echo throughout State Farm Center (nee Assembly Hall) and merchandise featuring the former symbol are still sold in local stores. This “persistence” phenomenon is seen on the Illinois campus to an extreme degree, to the point of prompting external researchers to analyze the causal impacts of this mascot’s incomplete retirement strategy.
The research results are not surprising to anyone familiar with the ongoing struggle, and do not shed a positive light on the campus’s reputation as a leader in inclusive initiatives. In their 2022 letter to the campus, the National Congress of American Indians put it best, saying, “when harmful Native “themed” mascots are retired but not replaced, harmful imagery persists as the community fails to come together around a new identity that is truly representative of them.” The vacuum filled with the same stagnant air as before, leaving those who were eager to move forward with little air for themselves. Whatever the new mascot suggestion was to be, it would need to surmount one of the most tumultuous college branding debates in the nation. But, there was hope to be had.
Enter: the Belted Kingfisher.
She’s unmistakable. With her big head, spear-shaped beak, blue, white and orange body, the female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) stands out in the lineup of birds often seen on the sidelines of a basketball court or football field. While there are over 90 kingfisher species found throughout the world, this particular one is native to the United States, and can be spotted alongside Illinois ponds and waterways year round. Belted Kingfishers are remarkably one of the few birds where the female is more colorful than the male, making her “naturally true to the orange & blue (the school’s colors)”. The Belted Kingfisher is not currently “claimed” by any of the other 4,000+ American colleges or universities, making it even more special to the University. It was this same uniqueness that caught University of Illinois students’ attention back in March of 2020, when the bird landed on a campus-wide referendum to select a new mascot. As the first and only mascot referendum to pass a specific (non-binding) proposal, the Belted Kingfisher was voted through by a margin of 625 votes out of 7,819 votes cast.
A few months later, the bird received an official endorsement from graduate students, and passed the faculty senate in a historical landslide vote of 105 - 2. The legislative call-to-action was clear: campus administrators needed to take prompt action to adopt the Belted Kingfisher as the new University of Illinois mascot. In response to this vote, the Chancellor created a Building New Traditions taskforce, which “will focus on facilitating the establishment of new traditions that promote belonging, inclusiveness, and school spirit. This will include the consideration of a new mascot.”, as described by the taskforce director Vice Chancellor Sean Garrick. To those who have been campaigning for change, some since the early 1970’s, even such a simple acknowledgment – that change is possible – is a major win.
Although campus administration have not yet made an official statement to adopt the mascot, many students, faculty and alumni have already started to make unofficial Kingfisher traditions for themselves. Since the votes, the campus has seen an uptick in student-made kingfisher shirts, hats, mugs, posters, stickers and even socks featuring the bird’s mock-up design. Nearly a dozen different student organizations and department groups have adopted the Belted Kingfisher into their logos and events. Local artists now incorporate the bird into their artwork, and two large kingfisher murals can be found on the campus’s main street. Notably, a group of art and engineering students and faculty have collaborated to create the full mascot costume to help visualize what the belted kingfisher could look like! Recent interviews with the students behind this revealed a plan for a “slow and steady” approach to public introduction late July of 2023.
Above all else, those supportive of the kingfisher hope that the campus administration realizes that a new mascot for the University of Illinois would be a much needed breath of fresh air for campus traditions.
About Spencer Wilken
Spencer Wilken spends a lot of her time looking up. Splitting her time between her love of birds and her love of stars, she is an incoming PhD graduate student at the University of Illinois leading the effort to bring a new mascot to the college campus. She currently resides in Wisconsin, with her husband Tyler, and her betta fish James Webb, while working with STEM outreach through the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Main quad of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign © eyfoto
Lead image of Belted Kingfisher © Brian E Kushner
Belted Kingfisher © Greg Lavaty
Belted Kingfisher © Harry Collins