Legend goes that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey over the bald eagle as America’s symbolic bird.
In a research project on the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s founding, Harvard students in 2016 found that the legend was more likely a misconstrued joke.
The Great Seal, which displays “E Pluribus Unum” and a bald eagle, was only in the concept art stage when Franklin was around.
At first, Harvard reports, the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal order, adopted its own version of the Seal. Franklin disapproved of the society, which was criticized by people who believed its goal was to “impose a hereditary aristocracy,” according to the modern day group’s website.
Franklin, in a satirical letter to his daughter, poked fun at the society’s version of the seal, which strongly resembled a turkey, Harvard reports.
"Others object to the bald eagle, as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly,” Franklin wrote in the letter Harvard published, later adding, “In truth, the turkey is, in comparison, a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America … 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."
He uses the birds as a metaphor for the British monarchy versus America. The eagle, he calls dishonest. The turkey, which is American, he calls “courageous.”
However, besides his joking, there is no record that Franklin lobbied for the turkey on the actual Great Seal.
To bring these two birds together for a Beak of the Week, I photographed the turkey in Spokane over the summer. The eagle was photographed two weeks ago in Rochester.
I thought I ought to save them both for Thanksgiving time. When your relative mentions the bit about Benjamin Franklin and the turkey, use “Beak of the Week” for dinner conversation. It will probably inspire less argument than a real news piece, anyways.
Turkeys can live in Lewis County, but aren’t known to. They have been spotted in parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports. They are much more common in Eastern Washington.
For their peacock-esque showmanship and their iconic gobble, I respect the turkey. Still, however common, my vote for the nation’s bird sticks with the majestic eagle.
Read Harvard’s full research report on this topic at https://declaration.fas.harvard.edu/blog/turkey.