Why we’re not having eagle with all the trimmings today

Imagine, if you will, (we are using our best Rod Serling voice here), a proud Army Colonel in an alternate universe, rows of ribbons on his jacket, and the golden turkeys on his shoulders symbolizing his rank.  

do-de-dodo, do-de-dodo, do-de-dodo….

(If you say it right, that’s the Twilight Zone theme).

The Colonel and his family sit down at the Thanksgiving table and enjoy a beautifully-prepared Butterball eagle and its stuffing, with gravy made from eagle gizzard, heart, other eagle delicacies.  By Sunday, though, the officer’s family is a little tired of eagle sandwiches, eagle soup, and eagle loaf.  And thank Heaven it’s been cold in these late November days or that eagle carcass in the garbage would smell reeeeealllly bad.

After the glut of poultry consumption wears off and the family regains its desire for some of it again, the Colonel might stop on the way home from the base some evening and bring home a bucket from KFE.  

Okay, back to our own universe. 

The National Bird issue was resolved in 1782 when Congress accepted a design from Charles Thompson–the Secretary of the Continental Congress for the fifteen years it existed–for the Great Seal of the United States.  His design featured a shield “born on the breast of an American Eagle on the wing & rising proper. In the dexter talon of the Eagle an Olive branch & in the sinister a bundle of Arrows. Over the head of the Eagle a Constellation of Stars surrounded with bright rays and at a little distance clouds. In the bill of the Eagle a scroll with these words E pluribus unum.”

So it was that the Bald Eagle, not the turkey, became the national bird. But it only happened over the objections of one of our better-known and much-beloved Founding Fathers.

A committee had been appointed after the Declaration of Independence was signed to create a Great Seal of the nation that had just declared it was independent of Britain.  John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, you would think, could create a great and noble Seal.  Nope. 

Nicholas Lund, writing in Slate, says, “Each man submitted a proposal, but their designs were awful—blandly allegorical and pedantic.”   So a second committee was formed, then a third, before Thompson suggested the design that became the official one. 

Franklin preferred the wild turkey as a symbol (he also proposed at one time, the rattlesnake).  He remained dissatisfied with the Bald Eagle as the country’s symbol, writing from France to his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache (known as “Sally” to dad), that the eagle is “a bird of bad moral character.  He does not get hjis 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 Man 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 has 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.” 

Franklin’s reference to the Cincinnati was to a recently-formed organization for Revolutionary War veterans.  The group had created an emblem with an eagle on it that looked more like a turkey to him.

There is some question about how serious Franklin was in writing an entertaining letter to his daughter.  Lund says, “Franklin’s words should be taken with the same grain of salt that I take when my dad emails me after the Patriots lose to say that Tom Brady should be traded.”  Another source records that Franklin never publicly criticized the choice of the eagle. And, in truth, eagles are not so bad as Franklin portrayed them.

Whether he was kidding or not, Franklin was speaking for a noble bird.  Not that big chunk of leftovers-to-be that is on many tables today.   No, he was talking about the wild turkey, an independent and strong-willed creature of nature.  Although wild turkeys are likely to run away when confronted by a predator, they can be pretty nasty when cornered.  Some of the big guys attack with beaks and spurs (the claws on the backs of their legs).  Their bites can be pretty bad.  And sometimes they’ll get a good run at a predator and bang into them with their large bodies.  We’ve seen one source that suggests, “Minor injuries can be avoided by giving turkeys a respectful amount of space.”  

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has cautioned against people raising wild turkeys, partly because of the possibility of disease spreading to other domestic poultry and of the possibility of damage to the paint on family vehicles caused by turkeys that roost over them.  “Some turkeys…may also become aggressive and chase homeowners, children, and pets,” warns the Minnesota DNR. 

Compare those guys to that lump of meat on the table.  Animal Sciences Professor Jeffre Firman at the University of Missouri-Columbia who says the chances are that that lump was pretty stupid when it was still inhaling and exhaling.  He doesn’t agree that our Thanksgiving turkey survived by now looking up during a rainstorm and drowning as it stood there.  But he does recall a Nebraska farm where a bunch of young turkeys tried to take refuge under a tree in a rainstorm and about 6,000 of them died when they piled on top of one another trying to stay dry.

He also notes turkeys will panic when an airplane flies over because they think it’s a hawk, and they’ll all run in the same direction until they hit a fence where they’ll pile up, smothering their buddies on the bottom of the pile.

A University press release about Firman that we got the other day warns that something as simple as a bucket can be highly dangerous in a pen full of domesticated young turkeys.  Firman tells of how one chick will jump into the bucket, but then can’t figure out how to jump out.  It will chirp and others will jump in to investigate. Pretty quickly the bucket is full of crushed turkeys. 

Long ago we read somewhere that in some cannibalistic societies, it is felt that the consumption of one’s enemy imbues the eater with the strength and wisdom of the eaten.  Thank heavens we don’t feel that way about turkeys.  

All of us however, are free to reserve our opinions on that matter after Congress and the Missouri legislature go back into session.  Perhaps it might make a good story for the Missourinet at some point when the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate go wading in the deep end of the pool of absurdity that we inquire into the members’ diets.

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