Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Our National Bird… The Turkey?

Stepping Stones

At this time of the year, everyone stops to give thanks for the love of family, friends and the opportunities that present themselves to us throughout our lives. I too would like to thank everyone I know, and don’t know, for the kindness and compassion that have been displayed to me over time. I wish a very heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

I also would like to reflect on history and remember what events got us all to the present day and the bounties we share. Battles were won and lost, decisions both right and wrong were made, and it all led us on our path to freedom. That being said, I would like to thank one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, for being wrong—possibly.

Now, the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated long before Ben Franklin was born. After their first harvest in the New World the early Americans—the Pilgrims—began a three-day feast in October 1621 and shared their food with the local Native Americans. All in all, as accounted by Edward Winslow, 90 “Indians”, the Wampanoag tribe, and 53 Pilgrims came together in friendship to give thanks for a fine harvest.

The meal consisted of venison, goose, pheasant, corn, nuts, squash and pumpkin. There was no turkey at the table and Aunt Emily’s green bean casserole was nowhere to be found. There was no stuffing and no cranberry sauce.

Goose was on the table at the first Thanksgiving.

So, how did the turkey become the symbol of our Thanksgiving table, the mascot of this national holiday? An American writer named Sarah Josepha Hale can take credit for us celebrating Thanksgiving as we know it today. For seventeen years, she lobbied for this tradition to become a national holiday, writing letters to five different presidents over time, including Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War when our nation was in turmoil, Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 to try and bring a sense of peace to a torn country.

But wait! How does Ben Franklin fit into this history? Let’s backtrack to our time of independence from Britain in the 1770s. Franklin supposedly suggested that the turkey would be a better national symbol for the new United States than the bald eagle. True or false? There are many who propose that this is true. The story manifests itself every year at this time and the fact is that good ole Ben did not propose the turkey as our national symbol.

What he did do was compare the turkey to the bald eagle in a letter to his daughter. He wrote that the “Bald Eagle is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly… it is too lazy to fish for himself.” He continued that the turkey is “a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America… He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.”

Similar to the way Americans defend their territory, Franklin admired the way turkeys defend their turf as well. Really? Turkeys that hunters encounter in the wild usually run and hide from intruders instead of defending their area. The Apache Indians would not eat turkeys or wear their feathers because they thought they were so cowardly.

In respect of Mr. Franklin, the eagle is an opportune hunter and I have witnessed on several occasions where an eagle will swoop down on a fish hawk (Osprey) that just caught a fish, causing that hawk to drop its catch and an easy meal for the eagle. In contrast, there is nothing more magnificent than watching an eagle swoop to the water and grasp a fish in mid-flight. They are prolific predators, for sure.

So, did the turkey almost become our national symbol? Apparently not. Some misunderstanding about a letter to his daughter caused enough ruckus that the writing was very misunderstood. So, thank you, Ben, for the fight that you waged and the many important inventions you created during your life. On behalf of a grateful nation, I apologize for any misunderstandings from your peers and the public. I have to admit though, the bald eagle is a magnificent choice for our national symbol.

Thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale for her unrelenting efforts to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Without her persistence, it may not have come to be. Nearly 80% of Americans have a turkey on the table for this prestigious holiday because of her efforts. On a satirical note, Mrs. Hale is the author of the poem, “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Go figure! Have a great holiday!

Bob is a Naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer, a dolphin survey vessel and eco-tour on Marco Island. He is the author of 2 books available locally and an award-winning columnist for the Coastal Breeze News. Bob loves his wife very much!

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