Benjamin Franklin on the Turkey: Keen Wildlife Observations from the 18th Century

The wild turkey is a handsome fowl native to North America and a symbol of the holiday celebrated today, Thanksgiving.  Although the animals the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests ate at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 included waterfowl, deer, fish, and lobster in addition to wild turkeys, only the turkey became a common menu item during modern celebrations in the United States.  The Mexican subspecies was domesticated into the fat, brainless bird we devour today.

It’s fairly well known that one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, supported making the turkey the national bird of the United States instead of the bald eagle.  An amusing exchange between Franklin and Adams about whether the turkey or eagle should be the national bird made it into the play (and film) “1776.”  As with many legends, there is a kernel of truth to it.

An article on Greatseal.com discusses the legend. It is apparently based on a passage in a 1784 letter Franklin wrote to his daughter about an eagle on the Society of the Cincinnati Medal, which was poorly rendered such that it looked like a turkey:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. 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 who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… 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.

Although the letter is probably facetious, most of the bird behaviors that Franklin recorded are absolutely correct and have not changed in the intervening two centuries.  The “Fishing Hawk” is an old name for the osprey, a bird of prey which dives into the water to catch fish.  Bald eagles do fish themselves, but have a habit of trying to steal from other birds as well.

WW12 Eagle
“You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself[…]”  Bald Eagle at Glacier National Park by the Middle Fork Flathead River. (I only had a 105mm equivalent lens…)
Once, while kayaking on the Elk River near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, I observed an osprey flying with a fish.  A bald eagle attempted to steal from the osprey and, in its haste to escape, the osprey dropped its catch.  The fish fell about 100′ (30.5 m) to the water with a splash.  I hope it survived because otherwise, what a waste of life!

The eastern kingbird (featuring the amusing scientific name Tyrannus tyrannus) is indeed a highly aggressive songbird despite its small size.  Eagles are not the only subject of the kingbird’s ire.  The kingbird ferociously attacks hawks, crows, and just about anything that may threaten the kingbird’s eggs or nestlings.  No doubt the “kingbird” common name is a reference to its ability to vanquish all comers, rather than there being anything regal about it (a mere flycatcher), but Franklin clearly enjoyed using it to make reference to America’s recent revolutionary history.

Bombay-Hook-Turkeys
A quartet of wild turkeys at Bombay Hook, no doubt patrolling for British soldiers

I’ll have to take Franklin’s word for it that turkeys would attack British “Red Coats” on sight, since there aren’t a whole lot of them poking around farms in the United States these days.  The turkeys I’ve seen are more likely to run than fight.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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