Benjamin Franklin on Birds

Chidem Kurdas

The witty Founding Father disapproved of the eagle in no uncertain terms. “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter. “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.”

Franklin alleged that the bald eagle steals fish from the fishing hawk, like “men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy,” and is a “rank coward” besides.

By contrast, he described the turkey as an honest American: “For the 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.”

But apparently the belief that Franklin nominated the turkey to be the national bird is one of those well-entrenched historical myths. Franklin preferred not to have any bird on the National Seal, as a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine points out.

Of course, the turkey did become America’s favorite bird for feasting purposes. Whether the respectable creature makes for good eating, Franklin did not say in the letter. The turkeys of his day, however courageous, must’ve been stringy. The plump version we eat came later.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


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