Those who know me recognize I’m a “turkey guy.” I really love that bird and the hunting challenges it represents. I’ve been blessed to hunt a lot of animals in a lot of places, yet few thrills equal a gobbling, strutting, slobbering tom coming to my call. Man, that’s good stuff!
Other than the eight 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 size of a shelled walnut, somehow it manages to regularly outsmart human hunters (including me) with a melon the size of a … well … a melon!
It is widely known Founding Father Ben Franklin was a proponent of the wild turkey as America’s national bird. And as a turkey man myself, I can understand his line of thinking. Yet each year, come independence day, while flipping burgers on the grill and enjoying a sweating can of American-made beer, I get to contemplating the pros and cons of the American wild turkey versus the American bald eagle as our country’s avian mascot.
While it’s an enjoyable mental exercise, I always come out in agreement with myself that the Second Continental Congress got it right back on June 20, 1782. That’s when those boys officially designated the bald eagle for the national seal they’d commissioned six years earlier!
In the woods of North America, I’ve been around both wild turkeys and bald eagles a good bit. I’ve spent time a good bit of time watching both. While turkeys appear to be “smart,”especially when you’re hunting them, I’m convinced what they possess is not so much intelligence as it is survival instinct. From the moment a turkey pokes its beak through that tough egg shell, other critters are trying to catch it, kill it, and eat it! To survive to propagate, turkeys must become very wary very fast. Come to think of it, though, wariness is a survival attribute Americans may be lacking far too much these days.
Those who live with eagles and watch them often recognize these raptors aren’t always the supreme hunters (or far more often fishermen) they are made out to be. Given the chance eagles will scavenge more than they’ll hunt. Their penchant for hanging around garbage dumps earns them the reputation of “buzzards with insulation” in northern climes.
In his dissent from recognizing the bald 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 does my grill-side mental debate always come to the conclusion the eagle was and is the right choice?
The one-word answer is “freedom.”
It’s hard to consider a turkey “free” when it spends every second of its existence simply trying to stay alive. It doesn’t seem possible to me to be a prey species and truly free at the same time.
On the other hand, few birds seem as free as the bald eagle.
Just like us Americans, the bald eagle’s life isn’t without difficulties and even responsibilities. Droughts reduce fish numbers. Habitat loss drives birds from native territories. Every wild creature is innately driven to perpetuate itself.
Yet when an eagle flies it soars. It can go wherever it wants. It can climb to amazing altitudes. It can hunt where it chooses. It can dive or ascend of its own accord. When a bald eagle is on the wing it is as free as freedom gets. The closest thing I’ll ever experience is time alone on a remote mountaintop—hunting … just “being” in my natural state.
In the America that has come about in the last 237 years, most of our days are not spent free as an eagle in flight. The news that comes on the TV every night reveals how far we’ve allowed that freedom to erode. And the scariest part is it seems this doesn’t bother a lot of people. We blindly allow it to happen.
As a symbol, as our emblem, the American Bald Eagle in flight represents the kind of freedom to which we should aspire, and which we must strive to regain in America.