I’m a “turkey guy.” I really love that bird and the hunting challenges it represents. Other than the 6 inches from the point of its beak to where those feathers begin below the waddles, the tom turkey can hold its own for beauty with any critter in God’s creation. And though its brain is smaller than a walnut, somehow it manages to regularly outsmart human hunters (including me) with a melon the size of … a melon!
Founding Father Ben Franklin was the proponent of the wild turkey as America’s national bird. And as a turkey fan, I can understand his thinking. But over the Fourth of July while grilling bratwurst and enjoying an American-made adult beverage, I got to contemplating the wild turkey versus bald eagle as our country’s avian mascot.
The result was a delicious picnic and agreement the Second Continental Congress got it right on June 20, 1782, when it officially accepted the bald eagle for the national seal they’d commissioned 6 years earlier!
As a hunter, I’ve spent time watching both wild turkeys and bald eagles. While turkeys appear “smart,” I’m convinced it’s not so much intelligence as survival instinct. From the moment a turkey pokes its beak through the egg shell, something is always trying to catch it, kill it and eat it. To survive, turkeys must become very wary and very fast. Come to think of it, though, wariness is an attribute Americans are lacking too much these days.
Those who live with eagles nearby also know they aren’t always the supreme hunters (or far more often fishermen) they’re made out to be. Given the chance, eagles will scavenge more than hunt. Their penchant for hanging around garbage dumps earns the reputation of “buzzards with insulation” in northern climates.
In his dissent from the eagle as the national emblem, Franklin wrote: “I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as 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, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him….”
So why do I still think the eagle is the right choice? The one-word answer is: “freedom.”
Few birds seem as free as the bald eagle. It’s hard to consider a turkey “free” when it spends every second of its life trying to stay alive. It doesn’t seem possible to me to be prey and truly free at the same time.
Like Americans, an eagle’s life isn’t without difficulties, even responsibilities. Droughts reduce fish numbers; habitat loss displaces the birds; and every wild creature is innately driven to perpetuate its species. Yet, when an eagle flies, it soars. It can go wherever it wants. It can hunt where it chooses. It can dive or ascend on its own accord. When a bald eagle is on the wing, it is as free as freedom gets.
In the America that has come about in the last 235 years, Americans are not as free as an eagle in flight. It’s shameful this doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people. But as a symbol, as our emblem, the American bald eagle in flight represents the freedom to which we should aspire.