THE BLOG
11/20/2012 12:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

Thanksgiving and the National Bird

What would Thanksgiving be without a traditional turkey dinner? The holiday is so closely associated with that native American bird that some vegetarians celebrate our national holiday with a tofurky, made from organic tofu and wheat protein.

The wild turkey ( meleagris gallopavo) is a unique North American species, a fowl so often favored by hunters that by the mid-20th century it was nearly extinct. Today, thanks to state and provincial restoration programs, the wild turkey population has regenerated to more than 7 million birds that roam 49 American states. The turkey eaten at Thanksgiving, nevertheless, is no longer wild, but a domesticated version developed from a Mexican subspecies of the orignal.

During the Revolutionary era, the wild turkey so impressed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin that he wished it had appeared on the Great Seal of the United States. It didn't, of course. Instead, Franklin's committee chose the bald eagle, which stands spread-winged upon the seal, one claw grasping a cluster of 13 arrows and the other clutching an olive branch with 13 olives over which the eagle's head appears.

Franklin was secretly displeased. "For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country, " he wrote his daughter, Sarah Bache Franklin, on Jan. 26, 1784.

"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 near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watched the labor of the fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has ... taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle ... takes it from him."

"With all this injustice, he is ... like those among men who live by sharping and robbing. ... Besides he is a rank coward. The little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America {veteran officers of the American Revolution} who have driven all the king birds { the British} from our Country."

In contrast, the Founding Father praised the turkey as " a much more respectable bird and ... a true original native of America. ... He is besides, though a little vain and 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."

Today, our admiration for native American birds has risen to new heights. Witness the squawking heard this month when presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced his intention to cut funds from educational television, thus suggesting the demise of Sesame Street's Big Bird. Nor can we overlook the ruffled feathers of many voters in the recent elections toward Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's "hawkish" attitudes towards Iran.

Unfortunately, Franklin's worries about the eagle's representation upon the Great Seal remains as relevant today as it was more than two centuries ago. As Congress faces the fiscal cliff and its consequences, should our representatives emulate the worst habits of the bald eagle, perched upon a "dead tree," taking food from the mouths of female birds and their young and earning his livelihood by "sharping and robbing"? Or should we, like that less lofty American bird, the turkey, exhibit "courage"?

As a nation we have much to thank on Thursday, November 22 -- our natural resources, our ingenuity and industry -- but also much to ponder as we gather with family and friends for a meal centered around America's native bird.

Contrary to the popular myths, the wild turkey can fly. As the recent election has proven, so can we, if, like that original American bird, we keep close to the ground.

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