Quick: what's the slogan on our license plates? Right answer: "Explore Minnesota."

Yawn. Half the states have nothing more than "Explore!" It's nice, and certainly more welcoming than "Stay In Your Hotel Room, and Live," I suppose. EXPLORE MINNESOTA is nice, but unless it says WIN VALUABLE PRIZES you can't expect anyone to check Travelocity for the first flight out.

Over the past few years, however, plates have taken on an additional role besides encouraging your inner Lewis and Clark: they raise money for good causes, and being the good-cause people we are, we've more charity plates coming. Each costs $30 extra and helps fund efforts to protect "critical habitats," and they don't mean arty bars where you find the Black-Turtlenecked Snark.

They're handsome plates with colorful pictures of flora and fauna -- all the usual suspects, including a big fish lunging for a lure. Well, that's why you're endangered right there, mister. Don't come crying to me when you're flopping on a dock. I'm critical! Really! Put me back! Should have thought of that before you bit on that shiny spinner.

There's a deer with an enormous antler rack that looks like it could pull in a TV signal from Uzbekistan, a small angry bird, a red-eyed duck that looks homicidal, and a Lady Slipper. That's the state flower. Never seen one, by the way, and I've looked. Have you? No. Forget the license plate; put the flower on a milk carton.

The state animal isn't on the plates, probably because we don't have one.

Oh, we have a fish -- the Pan-Fried Battered Walleye with Lemon Juice and Tartar Sauce, and a Salad With That? We have an insect, the Monarch Butterfly, which is the most obvious insect you can think of, but it's the only one besides the ladybug that doesn't make people reach for a rolled-up newspaper so they can kill it. Sorry, reach for the computer, call up Craigslist, print off 10 pages, roll them up, and kill it. Got to get with the times.

So what was the top vote-getter? None of the above.

The winner was ... the loon.

Didn't see that one coming, did you? The loon! They're wonderful birds, even if their name does come from the old Norse meaning "lame" or "clumsy." (True: the bird might as well be called the Ungainly Weird Shrieker.) But it's like another poll that names Bud Grant as our favorite old Vikings coach with "Ud" in his name.

It's always the loon with us. This wouldn't be so bad, except we already have a loon plate, and it won't be discontinued if the Critical Habitat Loon plate gets the nod.

There are so many other choices. I'd support a Gopher plate, because the gopher gets absolutely no love around here. He exists as a two-toothed burly biped in cartoon form who advocates for University athletic victories, but the real thing -- ingenious, homely, common -- is largely ignored. The only way they can get our attention is to start eating Lady Slippers.

We could have a plate devoted to the State Soil. Yes, we have Official Dirt. In 1987, the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists -- dedicated, no doubt, to combatting all the falsehoods and junk science put out by those amateur soil scientists with mail-order degrees -- declared our state soil was Lester Loam. Or Lester Loam was the fellow who sent the press release. Records are sketchy.

In 1977 a state senator wanted to declare the Leech the "official state parasite," to which his constituents may have said "project much?" Iron ore is our official mineral, even when Gov. Ventura was in office; there was an attempt in 1997 to make Licorice the state candy, even though we all know it's the Nut Goodie.

And so on. Each would make a perfectly fine license plate.

For that matter, why not a dandelion? Or Paul Bunyan's impassive face staring over forests not yet bent to the will of his mighty ax? I'd even go with the most obvious hardy-har-har choice, and put a skeeter on the plate. If we're going to tell people to Explore Minnesota, at least give them fair warning.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/buzz