Monday, 2 January 2012

Eagle 1 Turkey 0

Watching the first episode of the excellent BBC wildlife documentary Earthflight, I was struck by the behaviour of American bald eagles. Far from being the noble beast depicted on so many patriotic flags, banners, cups and posters, the bald eagle is something of a sneak thief that preys upon the weak and the helpless. Which makes it something of an odd choice for a powerful country to have as its national symbol.

Benjamin Franklin made this same observation in 1784 and voiced his concerns in a letter to his daughter, written on January 26th and sent to her from France. Here's what he had to say about the eagle as a symbol:

'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.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. 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 and 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.'

The turkey as the symbol of America? That would make the American Embassy in London look somewhat different.

With thanks to the Delaware River Basin Commission and the State Department of New Jersey.

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