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The eagle or the turkey

What choice would you make in 1776?

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In determining our national symbol, there was some rumored debate among our founding fathers. After the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin was purported to have been involved in the design of the Great Seal of the nation, and he seemed to favor the turkey over the eagle.

He was quoted maligning the eagle in a letter: “The Bald Eagle... is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly… [He] is too lazy to fish for himself.” As for the turkey, he wrote, “[The turkey is] 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.”

Before continuing with historical facts, let’s compare what Ben Franklin wrote with each species’ behaviors. Today, the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states is estimated at 5,000 nesting pairs. In the 1700s, however, that estimate ranged from 300,000 to 500,000. In some areas, eagles may have been a common sight. No estimates are available for the turkey population in the 1700s, but populations were suppressed as land clearing destroyed habitats. Settlers learned quickly that the turkey was a delectable meal; turkeys may have been perceived as more “useful” than eagles.

Turkeys are short-range flyers that fly to escape predators or fly to a tree roost. They prefer to walk and forage as they do. Turkeys are ground nesters and susceptible to predation. As the hatched poults
grow, they form into bands consisting of several hens and their broods.

Both birds are good flyers in their own right. Eagles are powerful in flight and soar very efficiently, but with their 6- to 7-foot wingspan they cannot navigate forests the way a turkey can. Turkeys, with their shorter wingspans, can navigate tight spots between trees in the forests; as they leave their nighttime roosts, the slapping of wings against leaves can sometimes be heard. Turkeys are herbivores, except for the occasional insect or salamander. Disturbed leaf litter in the forest is usually a sign that a turkey flock has been foraging in the area. Eagles, on the other hand, are carnivores; they will eat carrion and prey on mammals, but their preferred food is fish, easily stolen from an osprey or another eagle. Because of its flight ability, an eagle usually puts on quite an aerial display when it steals something. Stealing is a trait that many predators share.

Back to Benjamin Franklin siding with the wild turkey as the nation’s symbol—this story has been proven false. The seal was already designed when Franklin penned that letter, voicing his criticisms to his daughter. Franklin stated that the original design looked more like a turkey than an eagle, and the seal was redesigned slightly so the eagle looked like a bald eagle.

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