The Weekly Chirp: Birds in history

The bald eagle holds a special place in the hearts of the American people, birders and non-birders alike. While the exact reasoning may vary slightly from person to person, the major reason underlying Americans’ love for bald eagles is their elite status as our national bird. Once hunted to near extinction, bald eagles now inhabit rivers and lakes across the United States in healthy numbers, safely protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act passed originally in 1940. Soaring above in the sky and pictured on the quarters in our pockets, they follow and watch over us no matter where we go. Since the bald eagle became our national bird in 1782, it has symbolized the freedom associated with our country, and will do so for years to come. But have you ever wondered why, out of the 800-plus species that inhabit the United States, the founding fathers chose the bald eagle?

Turns out, the decision to use the bald eagle as the national bird was not straightforward. Benjamin Franklin, among others, was adamantly against choosing the bald eagle, and thought that the wild turkey was a more appropriate choice. Franklin highlighted the scavenging behavior exhibited by some eagles, pointing out that it would be inappropriate to associate the values of America with a scavenger. In this argument, Franklin was most likely referring to instances where eagles opt to grab chunks of dead meat from deer or fish carcasses instead of killing the animals themselves. Eagles have also been known to rob meals from other raptors, allowing them to conserve energy and still reap the final reward — not a particularly valiant behavior. Franklin also noted that flocks of smaller birds could drive eagles away, implying that the eagle was a coward at heart and could not be used to represent the bravery and independence of Americans. This phenomenon, known as mobbing, happens when a group of smaller birds (usually corvids, like crows and jays) fly repeatedly at raptors, crossing through their territory in an attempt to divert them to another area. While Franklin’s assessment is technically accurate, mobbing happens to all raptors, not only eagles. From the perspective of the raptor, this feels less like an attack and more like a nuisance, and they tend to leave to avoid the incessant pestering of the smaller birds. This doesn’t mean eagles are cowards — it just means they don’t like being annoyed. Sounds fair to me. Ultimately, the bald eagle’s beauty, seeming omnipresence across the country and overall dominance as a raptor were enticing enough to the majority of founding fathers, and so it became the national bird. Many still contest this decision, and will continue to do so (as is our right!).

If not the eagle, then what? Franklin proposed the turkey, mainly due to its native origin and widespread occurrence across the country. Furthermore, turkeys can be aggressive to those who overstep their bounds. There were accounts of turkeys attacking British redcoats in the 1700s, stories that were especially pleasing to Franklin. But while native and bold, the turkey is also fat, relatively stupid and ugly. Now that I think about it, maybe the turkey should be the official bird of the Trump presidency.