Toma Savu, a soldier from Romania who toured Lawrence recently, was struck by the sight of Jayhawk icons around the city and the Kansas University campus.
Among Lawrence residents and KU students, the mythical mascot bird "is like a password," Savu said. People either know the bird's significance at a glance -- or they're clueless.
A lot of people in this world don't know the "password," including a big-rig driver from Saskatchewan who rolled through Lawrence one night in late April. The man was sitting in his truck in a loading area off Massachusetts Street near a statue of a Jayhawk that's part of the city's ongoing "Jayhawks on Parade" exhibit.
As his truck idled, he noticed that passers-by kept stopping in front of the statue and admiring it, but he said had no idea what it was or why they were looking at it. Little did he know that he'd happened upon a city with a fetish for an imaginary bird.
Students who come to KU can expect a lot of teasing from friends and family members back home who are similarly clueless about the Jayhawk.
To help deflect these taunts, here are some facts about the history of the bird, assembled with help from KU's office of university relations and other sources.
- The word "Jayhawk," coined about 1848, comes from the combination of two birds: the blue jay and the sparrow hawk, a flesh-eating falcon now known as the American kestrel. In other words, the bird isn't as wimpy as some people think.
- During the 1850s, the Kansas territory was the scene of guerrilla battles between people who wanted a free state and those who wanted a slave state. Raiders on both sides became known as "Jayhawkers," but the name stuck with free-state forces.
- No matter how rowdy college students can be, today's Jayhawks are tame compared with the Jayhawkers of the 19th century.
In a book that chronicles some of the period's raids, historian Edward E. Leslie described Jayhawkers as "bands of disreputable guerrillas who proclaimed their loyalty to the Union while pillaging and murdering."
Of one Jayhawker, Leslie wrote, "His commitment to abolitionism caused him to free as many blacks as he could, but beyond that he was after loot and was not too discriminating about from whom he took it."
- Kansas' governor sent a regiment called the Independent Mounted Kansas Jayhawks to fight during the Civil War, and in 1886, the word "Jayhawk" made its way into KU's famous Rock Chalk chant. When KU fielded its first football team in 1890, the team was called the Jayhawkers.
- According to KU, fans tried to draw Jayhawks for years without much success until 1912, when Henry Maloy, a cartoonist for the student newspaper, drew a spindly-legged, smiling bird with a pair of shoes on its feet.
Since then, there have been five more commonly used Jayhawks. The one that's used today was drawn by Harold D. Sandy in 1946.