Here is something you may not know. It occupies a good three pages of Jack E. Davis's book The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America's Bird. Benjamin Franklin did not like the bald eagle and was partial to the virtues of the turkey. Franklin admitted, in a letter, that the turkey was a little "vain and silly," and, as everyone knows, it's also not great at flying and is hardly fierce, like the bald eagle, which is a master of one of its three meal "tables," the sky. (The other tables being the land and water.) Franklin saw the bald eagle as nothing but a thief who inspired bad feelings and morals in humans. But this opinion wasn't taken seriously, and so we find the bald eagle, a bird native to North America, on the Great Seal of the United States. It clutches an olive branch in one talon, arrows in the other, and a scroll with the Latin words e pluribus unum ("out of many, one") is in its beak.
A fierce nation is just like the fierce shumba (lion) of the sky. But what if Franklin's preferred bird, the turkey, was on the Great Seal and our money and armed forces? Wouldn't this choice have resulted in a qualitatively different United States? One that was kinder and gentler and maybe much slower to go to war? Just think about it.
Davis, a historian who teaches at the University of Florida and won a Pulitzer for his 2017 book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, writes in The Bald Eagle:
From skinny neck up, it’s all jiggle and shrivel framing round-eyed befuddlement. The gobbling doesn’t help. Its pear-shaped body suggests docility, the opposite of the bald eagle’s broad-shoulder mettle (some heraldic depictions in Europe showed eagles posing with wings open in the manner of a strong man flexing his biceps). The turkey is a decent sprinter, yet anything but a flying ace. It’s a close-to-ground aviator with an aerial range of about a quarter mile, although its usual is from ground to tree branch—where it perches at night in fear of predators. The bald fears none and it is capable of divine heights, in line with the ambitions of a rising nation.
(Quick note: Davis points out that the eagle is actually not the US's national bird. We weirdly do not have one. We could still make it the turkey if we wanted and had the will to. Imagine that mongrel-looking bird representing our army. What a difference that would make.)
What one must keep in mind is the bald eagle wasn't universally loved in the founding days of America. Farmers in particular hated the bird. Not only was it destructive but "a morally depraved predator and thief, and degenerate scavenger—a bird more corrupt than the pilfering garden crow." A turkey was of far greater value. It was pretty harmless, fed humans, and did not deprive other birds of their property. A dead bald eagle was a good bald eagle. Even those who loved the predator were in the habit of killing it to learn more about it and paint it. John James Audubon, for example, shot many of them right out of the sky for science and art.
Audubon also did not like calling them bald eagles because their heads are "as densely featured as any other species." But that's culture. It’s often all too human. Indeed, in our time, which has seen the resurgence of the bird after it reached the brink of extinction in the 1970s, we still call the eagle bald. We also ignore all of the bird's stealing and scavenging and only see it as a warrior. We admire the power with which they soar and dive but say next to nothing about their impressively huge nests. (Bald eagles are great architects.) We are amazed by how they catch (right out of the lake) and kill fish but ignore the amazing way they fuck in the sky.
[It] starts from a perch or in the air with one eagle calling loudly to a potential mate. If interest exists, the two will meet in flight. A fleet chase typically ensues, with pursuer and pursued exchanging positions, each barrel-rolling and scissoring their flight paths, or with one flying upside down beneath the other. Sometimes the two will clench talons together and roll horizontally through the rushing air.
Why isn't this mighty bird a national sex symbol?
Jack E. Davis presents his boo The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America's Bird this Wednesday, March 16, at 7:30 PM at Town Hall on First Hill. Find other suggested events by The Stranger right here.