There’s a story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be the national bird of the United States. When I was a kid some people told it to me to say they thought Franklin was goofy which I never believed. He was obviously a very smart guy who flew kites in thunderstorms, wrote an essay called “Fart Proudly”, and not only invented the Franklin stove but had the foresight to name it after himself so he could make money off of it forever. Other people told me they thought it made sense because wild turkeys, unlike their domestic counterparts, are pretty smart birds. They haven’t invented stoves or written any essays about farting but in 1940 they figured out how to brew their own bourbon and more recently discovered a free buffet over at River’s World, but that’s another story.
This got me wondering about turkeys and whether it was just a coincidence that they share a name with the country Turkey. In fact it’s not just a coincidence. The term “turkey” was originally used for a West African bird, the guinea-fowl, which was imported to Europe through Turkey and which looks, well, kind of like a turkey even though the two birds are unrelated. So when Europeans settled North America they called the large birds they found turkeys and the name stuck.
Anyway it turns out Benjamin Franklin never suggested the turkey for a national bird. He really wasn’t happy with the bald eagle either, though he never said so publicly. He did, in a letter to his daughter, say,
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… 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.
Fair enough, Ben. It was, in fact, the figure on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States with its eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other that set him off.
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in 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.
It’s just as well he never seriously suggested making the turkey the national bird because he does make a pretty good argument for it and the other Founders probably would have taken him up on it and then we’d never eat them which would be a terrible thing because bald eagles are pretty gamey while turkeys are delicious. That’s why we don’t just have turkey on Thanksgiving. Every deli offers turkey sandwiches and turkey salad. Most stores and many restaurants offer turkey sausage and turkey bacon which I think don’t just taste better but are kosher to boot, not to mention ground turkey, turkey cutlets, and turkey burgers. In a sense turkeys have become our national bird. We’re absolutely stuffed with ‘em.