American Birdbrain


You’ve probably heard the story about how Benjamin Franklin wanted the American national bird to be the turkey instead of the bald eagle. I first learned it on a first-grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo, and I remember one of the other kids in my group finding it hilarious. Of course, it’s not really true. Well, not entirely, but it IS based on an actual quote from Franklin.

A letter from Franklin to his daughter said that the eagle had bad moral character, being rather cowardly and stealing from other birds of prey. On the turkey, he wrote, “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.” I think he has a valid argument, as turkeys look kind of goofy but are no pushovers.

Of course, when designing a national seal, the look tends to be more important than the temperament of any animal involved. Owls aren’t really particularly intellectual, but they LOOK wise by human standards, so that’s what they’ve come to symbolize. Lions look pretty grand, and hence are used as symbols of bravery, even though lions in the wild are typically lazy and self-centered. The eagle is traditionally considered the King of Birds in the same way that the lion is the King of Beasts. It obviously looks quite impressive, and it’s pretty common to look at predators as strong rulers. Never mind that part of being a good ruler is sympathizing with your weakest subjects rather than just eating them. The eagle’s wingspan also symbolizes a wide reach, which is another part of why it came to be a symbol of imperialism. The Greeks and Romans considered the eagle to be the sacred bird of Zeus/Jupiter, King of the Gods.

The Roman Empire used it as a standard, as would the later Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires, the latter giving it an extra head.

Nazi Germany would adopt it as well, although obviously eighteenth-century Americans wouldn’t have been able to predict this. But then, the United States has always had imperialist ambitions, what with Manifest Destiny and all that. Is that really what we want to emphasize, though? Apparently pigeons have been known to participate in democratic decisions of a sort, and they’re certainly all over Philadelphia. That might just give the rest of the world the impression that we like to crap on statues, however.

But no, we got the American bald eagle, which Americans then proceeded to kill with guns and pesticides.

It’s no longer on the endangered species list as of 1995, but it does seem like it’s the animals people who think are cool that become endangered. I haven’t heard of mosquitoes or cockroaches being in danger of extinction.

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This entry was posted in Animals, Greek Mythology, History, Holy Roman Empire, Mythology, Roman, Roman Empire and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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