They certainly have a majestic appearance. A hoary-headed bald eagle, its spreading bronze wings riding the atmosphere in a brilliant blue sky, evokes a sense of strength and independence. No wonder these unmistakable birds became the symbol of our nation.
But the 1782 Congress that chose the bald eagle as an avian representation of the nation, like most modern-day Americans, was wowed by the appearance of the baldies without knowing too much about their behavior. Bald eagles aren’t the proud, brave hunters most believe them to be. They seem much happier pecking at the remains of a rabbit brought to earth by a speeding sports sedan than their own talons. They’re capable of hunting, but a higher percentage of their diet often comes from scavenging carcasses of animals killed by others.
Bald eagles are also bullies. Arguing in favor of the wild turkey as a more fitting national symbol, Benjamin Franklin had this to say about the bald eagle in a letter to his daughter: “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.”
It’s unfortunate that our forefathers weren’t more familiar with golden eagles, creatures who more appropriately embody the noble ideals of our nation: strength, independence and courage. Not that it matters. In a world where appearance routinely trumps reality, I doubt we’d muster much sympathy to dethrone a bully and scavenger as our national symbol — so long as it continues to look the part.