When is a bird a real turkey?

This post at 10,000 Birds, an item I accidentally bumped into on the Internet while looking for something else, and an unusual sighting moments ago, converge. And, its a nice distracting convergence which I need right now because as I sit here one week before fishing opener, looking at the glassy surface of Hunters Bay, I see fish jumping everywhere. Not only that, but a 54 inch muskie was found dead a few days ago 25 feet from where I'm sitting now. And, the Department of Natural Resources put up a fish weir just across the bay, and they've been coming by every morning and pulling out SCADS of keepers (mostly northern pike). I'm not even going to look for my fishing gear, even though I can feel it in my hands and I can hear the plop of a bushy yellow spinner with clipped-off barbs dropping into the water inches form a rise spotted only second earlier...

OK, OK, back to the birds.

So, the national bird of the US, according to Corey (and I think he's probably right about this) is the Bald Eagle, even though Founding Father Benj. Franklin wanted it to be the turkey. I do think it is better to have the eagle for several reasons. First, if the turkey was our national bird, we would be in the habit of eating our national bird in a big ceremony every November during our national holiday (Thanksgiving). Also, we would frequently eat our national bird in a sandwich for lunch. And we would talk about how eating our national bird could make us sleepy. And so on.

Franklin was against the Bald Eagle as our national bird because it is a bird of poor moral character. And this is true. As a kid, my very first sighing of a bald eagle, and this was at the height of the DDT crisis during which bald eagles in the Lower 48 were on the verge of extinction, was when I was watching an osprey (even more threatened by DDT) who just caught a fish flying back towards her nest... a giant bald eagle appeared out of the sky above the osprey, swooped down on the fish eagle and struck it from above. The osprey dropped the fish and the eagle was already diving below the victimized bird to grab the fish in mid air.

I watched that eagle take a fish from that osprey once or twice a day for two weeks. Often, perhaps most of the time, the eagle did not grab the fish in mid air, but it easily picked it up off the surface of the river over which this drama kept playing out. Also, often, the osprey would just drop the fish when it saw the eagle approach. The eagle would take off with the fish as its lunch, and the osprey would simply find a new fish that it could eat unaccosted. Franklin, in his assessment of the eagle, described exactly this behavior as evidence for the bird's low moral standing.

But, in the end, it is probably good that the eagle ended up being our national bird for another reason other than the symbolic cannibalism to which I refer above. This is the fact that when DDT and other bad things were causing the decimation of our raptor population, it was easier to get Congress (and everybody else) on board with regulation because it was the patriotic thing to do. If our national bird was the turkey, then the eagles would be extinct by now, as would all the other life forms that free rode on those regulations, including osprey, other birds high up on the food chain, and for that matter, liberals and conservationists.

The incident that occurred moments ago was this: We were driving along heading from town to the cabin when we saw a flock of vultures hanging out on and near the trees along the side of the road. We passed them, turned around, and retraced our route to have a better look. There in a small clearing near the road we saw about five turkey vultures and one bald eagle standing on the ground shoulder to shoulder, with the remains of a McDonald's happy meal just off to the side. I assume they had taken one of the local children from a nearby parking lot, though actually there are no McDonald's anywhere near here. More turkey vultures lounged in nearby trees, and as we left the area we saw several in flight heading in the general direction of this scavenger's orgy.

The item I came across on the Internet was this: Chippewa National Forest is the locality in the Lower 48 States with the largest concentration of Bald Eagles. Canada and Alaska have much larger concentrations, but for the southern contiguous states, its Chippewa National Forest. Which, interestingly, starts almost exactly one kilometer north of where the vultures were hanging around with this one bald eagle. In fact, as I sit here on Hunters Bay and look across the lake, to the extent that I can see anything through the spray being thrown up by thousands of giant Walleye leaping about, mocking me, I see trees on the other side that are within this forest, which encompasses Leech Lake, Cass Lake and several other large lakes, the Boy River and a good chunk of Mississippi River.

The moral of the story? The turkey may not be our national bird, but an eagle, which is, can be a real turkey.

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"I assume they had taken one of the local children from a nearby parking lot,"

So I presume that is why the Happy Meal was left behind, the eagle had a much better meal in mind. But that would make it much better to have the turkey as a national bird. I mean, there are plenty of people who think the US has sometimes behaved like the eagle, metaphorically, and taken some of their children.

Or perhaps you meant they had taken the Happy Meal "off" the child. Or maybe they just wanted the toy.

From Cap Huff, Kenneth Roberts' fictional Maine guide during the French and Indian Wars, "A turkey is an embarrassing bird. It's more than one man can eat, but not enough for two."

gack. I can't imagine any fish eagle being good eating. Probably right up there with seagulls on the yuck list.

I saw just the opposite. I saw an osprey take a fish from a bald eagle. Not only did it take the fish but it chased the eagle for some time before it got the eagle to drop the fish.

So, maybe the lesson is that birds carrying fish weighing 20% of their body weight can't fly that fast or fight back very well.


Greg, I don't know if Nat Geo has taken over selling ads for you all yet, but the banner at the top of your page is advertising QuantumJumping.com, which appears to be a technique for traveling to parallel dimensions to attract wealth and prosperity.

You've got to admit that an eagle is a more inspiring symbol than an animal that will drown if it happens to look up in a drizzle. And it's rather appropriate for a people that were using guerrilla warfare tactics against the British. Plus, a bald eagle is a pretty badass looking bird.

A few urban legends ---

* Ben Franklin wasn't actually serious about the turkey as a national bird. He was being sarcastic, a trait for which he was renowned but which we somehow forget whenever the subject of national birds comes up. What's more, he didn't make the suggestion formally -- he only mentioned it in a letter to his daughter six years after the bald eagle was adopted as the national bird. He wasn't happy with the bald eagle, obviously, but likely only suggested the turkey as a parody of the whole thing.

* Turkeys don't drown in rainshowers because they look up and are too stupid to close their mouths. Even domestic ones have decent self-preservation instincts against drowning.

* It's amusing to hear a bald eagle said to steal a fish from an osprey, which is subsequently described as a "fish eagle", since although some people call the osprey a fish eagle, I hear that term more commonly applied to bald eagles and the rest of the Halieetus genus.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 10 May 2011 #permalink


Well, this post isn't exactly serious either. Anyway, the original discussion by Corey gives the details on the Franklin letter. I have no idea if Franklin, who was overseas for all of this, was serious or not. Sounds to me like a possible case of skeptical skepticism.

Bald eagles routinely steal fish from osprey. Osprey are called fish eagles locally in some parts of the US. The African "fish eagle" is not merely referred to as a "fish eagle" but its official common name is "fish eagle" and it looks for all intense and purposes like an American Bald Eagle with a mullet. And by mullet, I meant he hairdo, not the fish. The ern, also sometimes called a fish eagle but more often a "sea eagle" probably links the old world Fish Eagle to the Bald Eagle in a sort of ring-species arrangement (the ern is in Greenland, etc.)

Yes, as far as I know, turkeys don't really drown when it rains. Who knows. Maybe one did once.

Where I live on the Kennebec River in central Maine, it is very rare to see bald eagles fishing, instead they wait for osprey to catch an alewife and then chase them to make them drop it. Their main prey is other birds, particularly seagulls and ducks.

Domesticated turkeys are about as similar to wild turkeys as a poodle to a timber wolf. Wild turkey were hunted to extinction in New England by 1900 and were physically restored in the 1980s by live trapping birds from New York state and are now quite common, one of the few really good successful wildlife restoration efforts. They are very wary but sometimes are not; and contrary to many peoples' belief are quite fond of roosting high in trees. They are decidedly not 'dumb' -- hunting turkey requires a lot of skill and the ability to correctly call in the males at mating season, which is now.

By Douglas Watts (not verified) on 10 May 2011 #permalink

The average lifespan of Bald Eagles in the wild is around 20 years, with the oldest living to be about 30. In captivity, they often live somewhat longer.

Greg, your post got me thinking about what might have been had the committee in charge of selecting our national bird had chosen differently. Obviously, the turkey would never fly (though I have seen turkeys in flight) but what about the Osprey? The seahawk is a noble, industrious raptor that cuts a fine form over waterways from coast to coast. If this bird was our national totem, we'd still have regulated DDT. Best of all, because the Osprey appears on 6 continents, the rest of the world would constantly be confronted with symbols of America (not that they don't deal with that all the time anyway!)

Does anyone else find it odd that there are things such as national or state birds, flowers, rocks, &c.? Where does that sort of thing originate?

Turkeys can startle the bejeezus out of you when they sneak up behind you while you are working on a ladder.

I assume one country or state did it for one thing for some quirky reason, then everybody else had to do it for everything eventually.

Still working on it. Not every political or institutional entity has one of everything.