For the Birds: Did Ben Franklin really want the turkey as the national symbol?

photo by Chris Bosak
photo by Chris Bosak

With Thanksgiving upon us, I am going to revisit my turkey fun facts column. I used to do this annually, but the content got staler than week-old stuffing. To add a little spice to this year’s column, I will start out by debunking a widely held belief about America’s favorite game bird.

If you do a web search for “turkey fun facts,” invariably the “fact” that Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle will come up. In full disclosure, an old column of mine may come up in that search as I’ve used it as fact before in my own writing. But is that really a fact? Evidently, no. I’m not a historian and I certainly wasn’t around in the 1700s to verify it myself, but I’ve come across several accounts that challenge the notion that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national symbol.

According to the articles, he actually wanted a Biblical scene to be our national symbol, not a bird at all. He did reference the bald eagle and wild turkey in some of his correspondences, but the references had nothing to do with our national symbol and some of the references were believed to be sarcasm.

He did, however, seem to favor the character and bravado of the turkey over that of the eagle. He did write of the eagle that it was a bird of “bad moral character” and that it was “too lazy to fish for itself,” a reference to the eagle’s penchant for stealing fish from osprey. Of the turkey, Franklin wrote that it was a “bird of courage,” “a respectable bird,” and that it would “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

The full story is much more complex and multi-faceted, involving references to the Society of Cincinnati and the Continental Congress. If you want to learn more, do an Internet search for “Ben Franklin turkey as national bird.”

I’ll close with a few traditional turkey fun facts, ones that have been confirmed by biologists and can be trusted as facts. I’ll start with a pleasant one to think about as we prepare to break bread with family and friends: You can tell a turkey’s sex and age by its droppings. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “male droppings are j-shaped; female droppings are spiral-shaped. The larger the diameter, the older the bird.”

Also from the FWS, turkeys can run 18 miles per hour and fly up to 50 miles per hour. The turkey may be a common sighting in New England now, but that wasn’t the case in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a changing landscape put the bird on the brink of extinction. Because of reintroduction programs, the turkey now thrives throughout the continental United States and has a population of more than seven million.

Did you know that turkeys sleep in trees to protect themselves from predators?

Finally, young turkeys are precocial and are out of the nest looking for food within 24 hours of hatching. Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.

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