Let us now praise our national bird.
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 45MM of them every year. So in that respect you could say the Turkey IS our national bird, at least during the holidays.
All of which got us wondering. What if their roles had been reversed? How impressive would a Turkey have looked on the front of the President’s podium? And, conversely, could we have ever developed a hankering for Eagle? Which reminded us of the classic case of a man defending himself against a charge of killing an endangered Bald Eagle.
Man: “I got lost in the woods. I hadn’t had anything to eat for two weeks. I was so hungry. Next thing I see is a Bald Eagle swooping down at the lake for some fish. I knew that if I followed the Eagle I could maybe steal the fish. Unfortunately, in the process of taking the fish I killed the Eagle. I figured that since I killed the Eagle I might as well eat it since it would be more disgraceful to let it rot on the ground.” Judge: “Due to the extreme circumstance you were under and because you didn`t intend to kill the Eagle, the court will dismiss the charges. But if you don’t mind the court asking, what does a Bald Eagle taste like?” Man: “Well your honor, it is hard to explain. The best I can describe it is maybe a combination between a California Condor and a Spotted Owl.”
The holidays are here. Enjoy your bird.