Its Thanksgiving week here in the United States. Those that are even remotely familiar with American history may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for the turkey to be the national bird.
Now, we end up dining on turkeys every year on the fourth Thursday of the month of November. And the American Bald Eagle represents the country with its bravery and glory….
But, honestly, if you consider the reasoning behind Franklin’s suggestion, one may wonder why our founding fathers (and mothers), didn’t take him more seriously.
Consider this excerpt from a letter from Franklin to his daughter:
“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 & 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 & 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.”
Despite Franklin’s misgivings about the Bald Eagle as the national bird, serious consideration of the turkey as the national bird didn’t get off the ground (no pun intended).
Although historical accounts may lead to a different story, in fact, Congress approved Charles Thomson’s eagle design the same day he submitted it – June 20, 1782. There was never a “great debate amongst the Founding Fathers” as to which would be the national bird.
For some, the idea that the turkey could have been our national bird is absurd. After all, a common slang reference for an idiot has been – for quite some time – a turkey. And, don’t you think they look just a little bit funny with its snood and wattle? (even those names themselves sound silly, don’t you agree?)
For America… the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave… a free, flying bald eagle seems a bit more inspiring than a waddling bird that runs around on the ground.
Who wouldn’t want to soar with the eagles, instead of run with the turkeys?
These days, I would even say that the fact that American Bald Eagles have been endangered adds to their mystique, and lends credence to the claims that they are worthy of honor.
“There are a number of reasons behind the endangerment of this species. The bald eagle was once a common sight across the entire continent, but its population began declining rapidly in the twentieth century due to natural and human made reasons. While their population was estimated to be around three hundred to five hundred thousand in the 1700s, their population fell drastically to around a thousand in the fifties. There were about thirty to eighty thousand of nesting Bald Eagles when it was adopted as the national symbol of the United States in 1782.”
There are several reasons that the American Bald Eagle became endangered. Fortunately, their numbers have climbed to the point that many no longer considered them to be an endangered species.
Among the factors leading to the endangered eagle include:
- loss of habitat
- thinning of egg shells (due to use of the pesticide DDT), which causes breakage and premature hatching
- illegal shooting of bald eagles
- poisoning of bald eagle prey (waterways in particular)
In contrast, turkeys have never been endangered, much less threatened. Nonetheless, its been a recent Presidential tradition to “pardon” a turkey each year before Thanksgiving.
There are many Bald Eagle protections in place, these days. The Bald Eagle is presently protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Lacey Act. As a result, there are about 5,000 nesting pairs and approximately 20,000 thousand of the birds in the lower 40 states of the United States.
The species was on the brink of extinction in the continental United States (while flourishing in much of Alaska and Canada) late in the 20th century, but now has a stable population and has been officially removed from the U.S. federal government’s list of endangered species. The Bald Eagle was officially reclassified from “Endangered” to “Threatened” on July 12, 1995 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On July 6, 1999, a proposal was initiated “To Remove the Bald Eagle in the Lower 48 States From the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.” It was de-listed on June 28, 2007.
I have personally seen a few of these magnificent birds in Washington State -soaring high above the fresh water lakes in the region. It is a truly inspirational sight!
There are no protections of turkeys, unless you count some farming regulations. Like many animals that are raised for consumption, turkeys live a relatively short, but well-fed life.
Here are some interesting turkey facts for your Thanksgiving dinner conversation:
- In 2008, the average American ate 17.6 pounds of turkey.
- 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
- Turkey consumption has increased 108% since 1970.
- Since 1970, turkey production in the United States has increased nearly 300 percent.
- In 2009, 250 million turkeys are expected to be raised in the United States.
- In 2007, 271,685,000 turkeys were produced in the United States.
- In 2006, Turkey was the # 4 protein choice for American consumers behind chicken, beef and pork
- The average weight of a turkey purchased at Thanksgiving is 15 pounds.
- The heaviest turkey ever raised was 86 pounds, about the size of a large dog.
- A 15 pound turkey usually has about 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat.
- The wild turkey is native to Northern Mexico and the Eastern United States.
- The turkey was domesticated in Mexico and brought to Europe in the 16th century.
- Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour.
- Wild turkeys can run 20 miles per hour.
While we celebrate – or at least, enjoy – the turkey on Thanksgiving, the American Bald Eagle gets the spotlight earlier in the month of November. At least indirectly! On Veterans’ Day, November 11 each year, government offices and banks are closed and children are home from school. The day is set aside to honor those military men and women who served bravely in defending the honor of the United States.
To become a veteran, you need to have served in one of the branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard, Marines) for at least 18 months, and have been given an Honorable Discharge.
While we honor these brave men and women, iconic American bald eagles are featured on flags, flag poles, memorials, and plaques.
So enjoy your turkey this week. Give thanks that you are not feasting on the U.S. national bird! And, while you are making your gratitude list, consider adding some thanksgiving for the men and women that have fought to make this country the amazing “land of the free and home of the brave” that it is.
We live in a place of promise and plenty. In a country that successfully brought the American bald eagle back from the brink. In a land that continues to protect important freedoms of speech and expression, and allows dissenting voices to be heard on every issue. Even including the selection of the national bird!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!