All Hail the Golden Eagle, Not the ‘Cowardly’ Bald One
By Ken Zurski
It’s hard to imagine anything other than the majestic bald eagle as the symbol of the United States of America, but back in the late 18th century, when good and honorable men were deciding such things, there were several considerations vying for a symbol which best represented the new country.
Benjamin Franklin was one such decider. Although Franklin didn’t quite nominate another bird, the turkey, as some history lessons would suggest, it was the use of the bald eagle as the symbol of America that most infuriated the elder statesman.
“[The bald eagle] is a bird of bad moral character,” Franklin wrote to his daughter. “He does not get his Living honestly.”
For Franklin it was a a matter of principal. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. Here’s why the perception is a reasonable one at least: Bald eagles are considered good gliders and even better observers. Therefore, they often watch other birds, like the more agile Osprey (appropriately called a fish hawk) dive into water to seize its prey. The bald eagle then assaults the Osprey and forces it to release the catch, grabs the prey in mid-air, and returns to its nest with the stolen goods. “With all this injustice,” Franklin wrote as only he could, “[The bald eagle] is a rank coward.”
Franklin then expounded on the turkey comparison: “For the truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird…a true original Native of America who would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
Regardless of his turkey argument, was Franklin’s assessment of the bald eagle as a “coward” a fair one?
Ornithologists today provide a more scientific and sensible explanation. In the”Book of North American Birds” the bald eagle gets its just due, for as a bird, it’s actions are justifiable. “Nature has her own yardstick, and in nature’s eyes the bald eagle is blameless. What we perceive as laziness is actually competence.” Being able to catch a “waterfowl in flight and rabbits on the run,” the book suggests is a noble and rewarded skill.
Perhaps, a better choice for the nation’s top bird, might have been the golden eagle, who unlike the bald eagle captures its own prey, mostly small rodents, but is powerful enough to attack larger animals like deer or antelope on rare occasions. (Its reputation today is tainted somewhat by rumors that it snatches unsuspecting domestic animals, like goats or small dogs.) But golden eagles don’t want attention. They shy away from more populated areas and appear to be “lazy” only because they can hunt with such precision and ease they don’t really have to ruffle their feathers.
The reason why America chose the bald eagle over the golden eagle to be the nations symbol, however, seems obvious by default. History had already pinned the golden eagle as a symbol of warrior strength and victory (“perched on banners of leading armies, the fists of emperors and figuring in religious cultures)” among other heroic and stately attributes. Basically, the golden eagle had been taken.
The bald eagle, by comparison, would be truly American.
Perhaps when Franklin made the disparaging comments against the bald eagle he was also harboring a nearly decade old grudge.
In 1775, a year before America’s independence, Franklin wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and suggested an animal be used as a symbol of a new country, one that had the “temper and conduct of America,” he explained. He had something in mind. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders;” he wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage”
Franklin’s choice: the rattlesnake.