The Kingfisher is Flying to Illinois

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2023 painting by Kingfisher team member Olivia Jean Merrell. Photo by Kingfisher Task Force, used with permission

In 2007 the UIUC Board of Trustees acknowledged the opposition of faculty, student organizations, and NCAA guidelines prohibiting the use of race-based mascots in intercollegiate athletics, and voted to eliminate “Chief Illiniwek” as the campus mascot. Tired of waiting for leadership on the issue, some students have moved ahead. You can read about this history in a May 2019 Public i article by Stephen Kaufman.

It’s hard going 16 years without an official mascot. To most people, mascots might not be a big deal, but for us at Illinois, how our university is represented is an extension of how we represent ourselves. That’s why, tired of waiting, we’ve decided to spend our time building one of our own. Our mascot is the Kingfisher, a distinctive orange and blue bird found in Illinois, with a wingspan of nearly two feet and nests that are lined with the bones of its prey. We, a group of dedicated students, faculty, and alumni, have been working diligently these past few years to make this mascot the icon it’s becoming, and for those who may not know of our work, we’d like to update you about all we’ve accomplished.

The Kingfisher as an idea began in 2019, when it was drawn by then-student Spencer Wilken. She recalled seeing the bird on her family’s farm in southern Illinois. By the time she became a UIUC student, many mascot proposals had come and gone without garnering enough support, and the mascot conversation remained a heated debate on campus. Nevertheless, in recognizing the uniqueness of the belted kingfisher, Wilken hoped it would have what it took. Students in Illinois Student Government—notably Dana Yun, John Compton, Victor Olowomeye, Anna Sekiguchi, and Susan Zhou—caught wind of her design through widely-shared social media posts, and were excited by the idea. They connected with Wilken, and together formed a plan to put the new proposal to a vote. It passed a campus-wide referendum with 4,222 votes to 3,597 against, and in a historical landslide vote, passed the Academic Senate by 105 votes to 2. The Kingfisher was no longer just another proposal. Those who wanted a new mascot needed a champion to rally behind, and they found it in the Kingfisher.

Ever since, the Kingfisher Task Force has been hard at work. Wilken, Yun, and Zhou immediately began networking with alumni, reaching out to different organizations, and hosting Kingfisher-themed events. They’ve also made and distributed plenty of merchandise in the form of stickers, shirts, keychains, and other gear. Giveaways have happened once every few months, and they’ve always been met with enthusiasm from students and faculty. Student Ethan Cooper joined the team early in his college career. As a member of Illinois Student Government, he has collaborated with students across campus to secure education-oriented funding. This will include information about the belted kingfisher species as well as Illinois’s history with mascots and traditions. We will continue our work in the years to come, strengthening our community connections and reinvigorating school spirit with a new mascot.

Thanks to the support of so many people, the Kingfisher has become a strong force for positive change. The bird is featured in two prominent campus murals, both painted by artists from the Boneyard Creek Mural Initiative. Current students, including our own Emma Lin and Olivia Merrell, have created their own Kingfisher art that we are always proud to share with our supporters. Registered student organizations have endorsed us, and some, like Red Bison, Natural Resources Environmental Science Graduate Student Association, and Engineers without Borders have added the Kingfisher into their group’s logo. One of our favorite promotions comes from the Illinois computer science department, where department members served on the self-named “KingFisher” robotic NLP development team. We love seeing everyone in the community connecting with our mascot in such different ways. The more people that embrace this bird as their own, the stronger our movement becomes.

Our efforts have also received endorsements from local groups like the Champaign Audubon Society and UIUC Graduate Employees’ Organization. Moreover, we’ve received state and national recognition from organizations dedicated to the empowerment of native peoples. These include the National Indian Education Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the Association of American Indian Affairs, the Coalition of Natives and Allies, and the American Indian Center of Chicago. We are proud to have formed a movement these groups can approve of, and continually work together to keep our goals aligned. After all, every one of those national organizations had extensive experience with the same issues and questions our community now faces. We’re very thankful that we’ve won their support and intend to continuously earn it moving forward.

In December of 2022, fellow students Ellie Rebellón and Evan Lemberger took the movement to the next level and began making a physical mascot costume. (It seems to be an unofficial Big Ten tradition for most college mascots to start out as student-made projects.) To best visualize what a mascot could look like for our campus, we need to create a mascot people can actually see! This is the first article of clothing Lemberger had ever made, so he spent the entire spring semester bouncing between different design studios and campus instructors, learning from everyone who was generous enough to teach him. For Rebellón, the Kingfisher will look nice among her four previous mascot heads. With the costume nearly complete, we intend to show our community just how strong a student-led movement can be with a well-defined character leading the way. Lemberger and Rebellón would like to thank everyone who has supported us, donated to us, and advised us throughout the months of production. This costume would not have been possible without you.

The front and back of the body suit of the costume, modeled by Evan Lemberger. Photos used with permission

 

 

As the academic year of 2023/24 begins, we expect to be very busy continuing our promotions for a larger audience than ever before. The Kingfisher will be making many appearances, giving out more merch, meeting its new fans, and making the people at UIUC proud to say that it is their mascot. We hope to strengthen our relationships with our supportive groups across campus, and we’re excited to establish connections with new groups to make our bird more holistically Illinois. We’ll be around on Quad Day, and we hope new students will say hello and contribute their talents toward making the mascot better every year. To the current students and faculty at UIUC, please be sure to follow us so we can connect you with events, giveaways, and more. We’re eager to bring new traditions to our campus for you to be part of on the ground floor.

The Kingfisher has been a long time coming. People have been advocating for a new mascot for Illinois as early as 1975, and every year since, the need has only become greater and greater. Countless individuals have advanced us toward a new image for our campus, and it’s because of them that we are writing about our work today. To everyone who has enabled us to be here, we are standing on your shoulders, and we cannot thank you enough.

The Kingfisher Task Force is composed of students and alums from many UIUC schools and departments who are working to make the Kingfisher the official UIUC mascot.

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