Let Us Now Praise Our National Bird

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by Mike Keeler

You’re probably thinking it’s the Bald Eagle. He’s been on our stuff forever. In 1782, Congress approved a design for a Great Seal which featured an Eagle, holding in his right talons an olive branch representing peace, and in his left talons 13 arrows representing war. That symbolism has been constantly updated and integrated into many of the nation’s symbols, including the Presidential Seal, and onto much of our currency. (Over the years, the Eagle’s face has variously been turned to the left, or to the right, which has spawned an urban legend that the Great Seal is constantly updated in response to whether the nation is at war or at peace. Not true.) So, yeah, the Bald Eagle is officially our bird.

 But if you go back to the original version of the Great Seal, you’ll find the Eagle wasn’t rendered very well. He looks a little dopey. He’s a bit of a, um, Turkey. Which caused at least one Founding Father to question whether we’d chosen the right bird.

Ben Franklin, writing a letter to his daughter, said, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. For the Truth, the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

But – too late Ben – the decision had already been made, and the Turkey had lost out. However, Turkeys have proven resilient, and more beloved than Eagles in at least one respect: they sure are tasty. In the 1960’s, while Bald Eagles were being wiped out by DDT, Turkeys became ubiquitous.  We eat over 45 Million of them every year. So in that respect you could say the Turkey IS our national bird, at least during the holidays.