Turkey Day: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

turkey

The American Thanksgiving feast is almost unimaginable today without the turkey. The bird’s name, image, and flesh have become synonymous with the annual holiday, as evident from young children’s grade-school artwork, grocery store advertisements, political ceremonies, and professional football game trophies.1 Since the turkey’s modest inception at the seventeenth-century harvest celebration of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people, the creature’s stature has greatly ascended.

Humble Origins

For starters, whether turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) was consumed at that famous gathering of 1621 is dubious. The few records available indicate that an extensive amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event often considered the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. First-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford reveal that, along with venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served.2 However, experts have expressed skepticism about whether this reference meant turkeys, noting that ducks and geese were more likely due to their prevalence in that area.3, 4

Meanwhile, during the time of the harvest event at the Plymouth colony, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England.5 Approximately a century prior to this historic celebration, European explorers had discovered the domesticated turkey in what is today Mexico.  When conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards brought these birds back along with them. Oddly enough, the fowl’s similarity to another established galliform led to its eventual namesake. “Guinea fowl, a native of Africa, was known as a turkey in some areas because some of the domesticated stock had been imported from Turkey,” explains zoologist Osmond Breland in his book Animal Life and Lore. “Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys.”6 So this, in short, is how a New World bird acquired the name of a Middle Eastern country.

The American turkey quickly assumed its spot among prominent feast birds, eventually eclipsing them.  For centuries throughout Europe, other large and more abundant fowl had adorned tables during celebratory meals and festive occasions. In England, roasted swan had been popular in such circumstances.7 Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn.8 The custom of two children pulling opposite ends of the wishbone or furcula to obtain a granted wish or to determine who would be the first to marry may have even begun with the greylag goose.9 When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual. The turkey was a poultry favorite among the American colonists, though Benjamin Franklin’s letter expressing admiration for the bird as a symbol for the new country has been overstated and misunderstood.

The Dinner Table Centerpiece of a Holiday

By the nineteenth century, the turkey gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Her efforts persuaded President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday; she also popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings.10 Besides establishing this distinctly American celebration, President Lincoln became the first U.S. commander-in-chief to “pardon” the bird. The presidential practice of granting selected turkeys clemency from the dinner table, however, did not catch on until a century later, starting with President John F. Kennedy.11

Without the vision of Hale and the influence of Lincoln, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today perhaps would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has turned into our nation’s most gluttonous pastime.

Sources:

  1. “NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts,” 11/24/10, 1/3/2015. Sports Geekery: http://www.sportsgeekery.com/3815/nfl-thanksgiving-day-football-history-and-fun-facts/.
  2. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
  3. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving,” 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html.
  4. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies,” 11/23/2011. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving.
  5. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  6. Breland, OP. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  8. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds.  New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 93.
  9. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  10. Krulwich, R.
  11. Montanaro, D. “The Strange Truth Behind Presidential Turkey Pardons,” 11/25/2015. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/25/457253194/the-strange-truth-behind-presidential-turkey-pardons.

 

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If Looks Could Kill

cockatrice_jlweb

Monsters have been known to take many forms, from seductive succubi and skulking bogeymen to blood-slurping chupacabras and giant krakens. Among the most unusual and horrific of such creatures has to be the cockatrice. Associated with demonic forces and deadly powers, this small, peculiar beast stirred panic in the hearts of late-medieval Europeans.

Part-bird and part-snake, with bat-like wings, the cockatrice was believed to be the offspring of a farmyard oddity—an egg-laying cockerel.1 If anyone discovered such a rooster, prompt and severe actions were required. First, retrieving the egg before it was incubated by a toad2 or snake3 was necessary, so as to prevent the cockatrice from developing and ultimately hatching. If the rooster was really thought to have laid an egg, then the fowl had to be destroyed so that no other eggs were produced. Again, such matters were taken very seriously, as demonstrated in 1474 by the people of Basel, Switzerland, who put their alleged avian culprit on trial before burning it at the stake.4

A Scary Notion

The possible existence of creatures in conflict with the natural order of things was a terrifying prospect to people centuries ago. What the cockatrice and its supposed egg-laying cockerel parent represented were affronts to a fixed delineation between the sexes and between species. Aberrations could be seen as crimes against nature, involving witchcraft or the meddling of a sinister supernatural realm. Danger was apparent in the cockatrice’s form, of course, in other ways. The creature supposedly had scales and a snake-like tail, key physical characteristics shared with the devil. (Passages in the book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2) describe Satan as a serpentine entity, an idea John Milton used with memorable effect in his Paradise Lost.)

Not surprisingly, the cockatrice became synonymous in medieval bestiaries with another ancient and menacing snake, the basilisk. Perhaps most familiar today from JK Rowling’s 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk has a long history. Belief in such a beast extends at least as far back as the first century, described in the writings of both Pliny (Natural History) and Lucan (Pharsalia)5 and later misattributed to venomous creatures of the Old Testament.6 Similarities were said to exist in the lethal prowess of both the basilisk and cockatrice, as they were reportedly capable of delivering venomous bites and emitting a poisonous odor.7 Their usual mode of killing, however, consisted of simply staring into a victim’s eyes, a notion popularized in Shakespeare’s plays.8

Science to the Rescue                                                                            

As serious inquiry replaced superstition, monsters from the Dark Ages came to slowly be dismissed. Scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment rejected the flimsy evidence—mostly hoaxes9—of a half-bird, half-snake cockatrice. Unraveling the mystery behind the egg-laying cockerels, however, took a bit more effort. The eighteenth-century French scientist François Gigot de Lapeyronie was the first to conduct rigorous investigations into the subject; his studies concluded that the roosters in question were actually hens.10 Subsequent research has since demonstrated that female fowl with certain ovarian diseases can develop some of the physical characteristics of their male counterparts.11

So unbeknownst to the residents of fifteenth-century Basel, Switzerland, the egg-laying rooster they prosecuted was probably a hen with some hormonal ailment. The cockatrice that haunted medieval Europe never materialized, for the beast with deadly eyes was only a freakish fiend hatched from unfounded fears, another testament to the irrationality of human nature.

Sources:

  1. Bondeson, J. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 167.
  2. Bondeson, J. p. 167.
  3. Stephens, TD. “A Basilisk by Any Other Name … (A Short History of the Cockatrice): A Commentary on Dr. Hook’s Article on Shakespeare, Genetic Malformations, and the Wars of the Roses.” Teratology 35: 2 (April 1987). AR Liss, Inc. p. 278.
  4. Stephens, TD. p. 277.
  5. Badke, D. The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages: Basilisk (1/15/2011): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm.
  6. In several Old Testament texts (e.g., Isaiah 14:29, Jeremiah 8:17, Proverbs 23:32, Psalms 91:13), the terms for certain venomous animals were erroneously translated as “basilisks” and “cockatrices.” For more information, see J Bondeson (p. 167) and TD Stephens (p. 277).
  7. Hulme, FE. Natural History, Lore and Legend: Being Some Few Examples of Quaint and By-Gone Beliefs Gathered in from Divers Authorities, Ancient and Medieval, of Varying Degrees of Reliability. London, UK: Bernard Quaritch, Norman and Son, 1895. p. 237.
  8. Hulme (p. 237) notes three Shakespearean plays that refer to the cockatrice’s deadly glance: Romeo and Juliet (3.2.47), The Tragedy of King Richard III (4.1.54–55), and Twelfth Night (3.4.197–198). A greater number of the bard’s works cite the basilisk in this role, including Cymbeline (2.4.109–110), The Life of King Henry V (5.2.17–18), The Second Part of King Henry VI (3.2.52–53), The Tragedy of King Richard III (1.2.153), and The Winter’s Tale (1.2.386–389), among others.
  9. One of the most common hoaxes consisted of dried rays or skates, sometimes referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.” TD Stephens (p. 279) notes the use of these preserved remains centuries ago by conmen. Famed Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi supposedly possessed such a specimen but did not think it was a basilisk or cockatrice (J Bondeson, p. 178).
  10. Bondeson, J. p. 188.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 282.

 

Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

cemetary.jpg

Many people tend to be creeped out by graveyards and memorial gardens, especially around Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Yet these places can have the opposite effect, awakening in visitors a newfound sense of the sacred and beautiful, offering an intimate perspective on history, and stoking spiritual contemplation.

Inside such sanctuaries, past the wrought iron fences, stand rows of headstones and tomb monuments (including mausoleums). On them are dates, epitaphs, and symbols, altogether the final expressions of the dead. By way of these chiseled features on marker stones, the deceased communicate with the living. Ornamentation, of which carvings and sculptures of birds are especially noteworthy, accentuates this connection.

Spiritual Symbols and Signposts

Avian iconography, among the most pervasive of contemporary animal-based cemetery themes, is widespread, having been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. The ancient Egyptians were particularly fascinated with birds in this regard. Besides mummifying ibises1 and falcons,2 they placed wooden human-headed bird figurines with their dead.3 Similarly, American Indians thousands of years ago included so-called birdstones in graves.4 In China, images of cranes were painted to decorate the tomb of a fourteenth-century Taoist priest,5 while ancient sculptures of birds atop cedar trees remain throughout Iran’s ancient Dar al-Salam cemetery.6

Winged creatures of many kinds hold spiritual significance to the deceased. Here in the United States, where the predominant religion is Christianity, the dove is the primary bird of choice.7 This is understandable considering the animal’s historical connections to ritualized purity (e.g., Leviticus 1:14–17) and symbolic importance to the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). But it’s not the only feathered beauty to be depicted on Christian burial monuments. For example, statues and carvings of peacocks can also be seen, principally in Europe.8 Such imagery calls to mind the birds’ centuries-old association with immortality, as cited in medieval bestiaries and taught much earlier by St. Augustine, who claimed from his own personal observations that peafowl flesh would not rot.9

Special Circumstances          

While religion is a central component of most cemetery art, symbols found in graveyards are sometimes dedicated to a loved one’s heritage and occupation. Therefore, swans, hawks, and other avian iconography appear in heraldic designs on headstones, as American families have wished to accentuate their ties to European ancestry through such features.10 Also, a person’s fame and accomplishments, especially if exemplary, occasionally take symbolic form in granite and marble. Consider the carved raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s old grave marker or the avifauna depicted on John James Audubon’s memorial tomb.

On a sidenote, some cemetery pieces have been known to develop a life of their own. One of these is the Bird Girl sculpture.11 Featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bronze statue from the Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, GA, emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Concerns however eventually led to the Bird Girl’s relocation; it now safely resides in the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center, not far from Bonaventure.12

Final Respects

Though the Bird Girl no longer dwells among obelisks, crosses, tablets, and other grave art, lots of avian imagery and bird-related figures can be seen on longstanding monuments to the deceased. For people intrigued by symbology, the presence of such visuals makes for interesting sightseeing. Actual birds—not those crafted from stone—are likely to be spotted and heard, too, as memorial gardens are the unofficial bird sanctuaries of urban areas. So very little in cemeteries is creepy. On the other hand, much exists to appreciate and ponder.

Sources:

  1. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  2. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34–35.
  3. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. p. 201.
  4. Lenik, EJ. Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. p. 217.
  5. Hung, W. Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2010. p. 61.
  6. Parsayi, M, Rad, FS, Mazloomi, SM. “Study of Graphical Features on Gravestones of an Ancient Iranian Cemetery.” Material Religion. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (March 2014). pp. 124–127.
  7. Keister, D. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004. pp. 79–80.
  8. Keister, D. pp. 83–84.
  9. Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books XVII–XXII (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 24). Walsh, GG, Honan, DJ (translators). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008 (first printed: 1954). Book XXI, chapter 4. p. 345.
  10. Clark, EW. “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of American Identity.” Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Meyer, RE (editor). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992. p. 41.
  11. This sculpture, one of several made by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson, consists of a young female who holds two pan-like bowls. Since no birds are depicted, the origin of the statue’s Bird Girl nickname is not apparent. The prevailing idea is that the bowls may have served as feeders. However, another possibility is that, when rainwater filled the bowls, they functioned as birdbaths.
  12. Stollznow, K. “The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery,” 8/3/2009. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_haunted_pseudo_history_of_bonaventure_cemetery.

Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.

A Salute to National Birds

quetzel

Several comments from my last post got me thinking. Most countries have national birds. But why? What do they matter? And which characteristics make for an effective one?

The custom is widespread, a heraldic vestige dating back to ancient empires and the once-flourishing practice of coats of arms. Countries as culturally diverse and far away from one another as Finland (the whooper swan), India (the Indian peafowl), and South Africa (the blue crane) give a nod to their avian preferences.1 As previously noted, the bald eagle was declared part of the United States’ official symbol in 1782, back when the country adopted its Great Seal.

Not all birds are sanctioned as national representatives; some have become accepted by consensus or through online voting. Such is the case with the United Kingdom’s European robin.2 It holds true as well for the common loon, a traditional but unofficial favorite of Canada. This is why Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project is conducting an online poll for selecting the top vote-getter from a bevy of avian candidates. Thus far, the common loon is leading. The aim of this project, once complete, is to persuade the Canadian government to act, making the nomination official.

Identity Politics

Generally speaking, the national bird is a cultural favorite that demonstrates some symbolic significance. The chosen symbol usually connotes a sense of respect, which undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of the eagle, a large bird associated with strength and expansive vision, as well as the ability to soar to great heights. Yet much more seems required for becoming a national bird than mere symbolism alone.

Most national birds, from best I can tell, fulfill three qualities:

  • The avifauna are native species found throughout many regions of a nation (either during breeding or wintering periods, or both).
  • Their features (and/or cultural relevance) are exceptional or distinctive in some manner (e.g., color, size, song) in relation to other native birds, as well as to other national birds.
  • They inspire special devotion and graphical representation within the national domain.

Thus, the first factor explains why the African fish eagle is appropriate for Zambia and the gyrfalcon for Iceland but not vice versa. The second factor provides further justification for why the colorful keel-billed toucan of Belize, the call-carrying bare-throated bellbird of Paraguay, the enormous emu of Australia, and the diminutive kiwi of New Zealand are national birds. And the third factor involves the depiction of these creatures on flags, currency, stamps, and the like. Think of this as the public relations campaign aspect of celebrating a national bird.

Vexillology? Numismatics?

Those familiar with The Big Bang Theory sit-com, may remember the fictional video podcast series called “Fun with Flags.” For their nerdy online project, hosts Sheldon and his girlfriend Amy regularly shared factoids about vexillology. For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s the study of flags—and, yes, the duo’s stilted conservation was that comically technical.

Unfortunately, poor Sheldon suffers from ornithophobia. However, if he and Amy had managed to record a podcast examining birds on national flags, they would have noted that very few include avian images, only about a dozen or so. And, not surprisingly, roughly a third of those display raptors, mostly eagles. Among the most unusual of birds featured on flags are Dominica’s imperial Amazon parrot, Uganda’s grey-crowned crane, and Kiribati’s frigatebird.

Interestingly, while the Andean condor is considered the national bird of several South American countries,3 its presence graces only a single national flag, that of Ecuador. The raptor however is among several avifauna depicted simultaneously on both flags and currency, a group that also includes Mexico’s golden eagle4 and Papua New Guinea’s bird-of-paradise.5 By the way, here’s another word worthy of a Sheldon podcast: numismatics. If you were wondering, that’s the term for the study of currency.

National Treasures

Of all the national birds, the one that arguably occupies the most prominent status is Guatemala’s resplendent quetzal. Valued for its beautiful feathers, this creature was linked centuries ago to two major Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl and Quetzalpetlatl.6 In honor of the bird’s historical and cultural significance, the quetzal not only appears today on Guatemala’s flag, banknotes, and coins, but its name has been conferred upon the national monetary system.7 Thus, rather than dollars or pesos, financial transactions are made in quetzals.

A lot of countries, of course, display a variety of birds and other animals on their currency. Doing so is a way to increase awareness of native wildlife and encourage conservation.8 Featuring creatures on flags and as national birds, national mammals, national reptiles, etc., is another means of cultivating an appreciation of the many lifeforms and environments in our home countries and abroad. For me, these are the most important reasons for having a national bird or national any-other-creature.

Sources:

  1. Long, A. “National Bird Day – Time to Take Pride in Your Birds,” 1/5/2016. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/national-bird-day-time-take-pride-your-birds.
  2. Mathiesen, K. “Robin Wins Vote for UK‘s National Bird,” 6/10/2015. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/10/robin-wins-vote-uk-national-bird-britain.
  3. Long, A.
  4. Armstrong, EA. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 73. (Note: arguments based on Aztec legend do exist for the northern crested caracara over the golden eagle as the actual bird on Mexico’s flag.)
  5. Armstrong, EA. p. 150.
  6. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Metro Books, 2007. pp. 212–213.
  7. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 5.
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Voices: 5 Countries Putting All Their Money on Species,” 8/8/2014. National Geographic: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/08/5-countries-putting-all-their-money-on-species/.

 

Ben Franklin v. the Bald Eagle

benfranklin

It’s an odd curiosity of early American history. In a letter to a family member, the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence decides to throw shade at his nation’s new symbol. Why he did this may seem a little perplexing at first. But context is important, especially here. So let’s try to better understand where Benjamin Franklin was coming from in his criticism of the bald eagle.

The Bald Eagle as a U.S. Symbol

The founding father’s 1784 missive was written only about a year and a half after the United States adopted the bald eagle as part of the country’s Great Seal.1 In a bit of historical trivia, Franklin served on the first of three committees dedicated to creating the design.2 Later, he used the seal while acting as a U.S. ambassador in France.3 However, during his post there is also when he penned that infamous letter to his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache.

In that piece of overseas correspondence, Franklin declares, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country.”4 Then the Philadelphian sage states three reasons for his objection, two specifically relating to the creature’s “bad moral character” and a third regarding the popularity and pervasiveness of eagles in general. Overall, he asserts (or appears to) that the bald eagle is an unfit symbol for a democratic republic free of monarchic rule and aristocratic ties.

Examining Franklin’s Case

For Exhibit A, he accuses the bald eagle of being a lazy cheat, apt to forcing the osprey, by means of harassment, to relinquish its catch. And, indeed, Franklin is right about the raptor’s behavior. Though bald eagles will hunt their own fish, they frequently bully food away from other birds. This is evident in the Grand Prize-winning photo from this year’s Audubon Photography Awards; that stunning picture captures a bald eagle ambushing great blue herons.

Thievery, however, is the smallest of problems Franklin has with the bald eagle. Moving on to Exhibit B, he seizes upon what he considers its greatest fault, calling the raptor a “rank coward,” prone to fleeing from “a little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow.” What Franklin meant by “king bird” is not clear,5 but there is some truth in his anecdotal statement. When mobbed by smaller feathered creatures, such as crows and sparrows, many raptors do choose to fly off rather than fight. Bald eagles and other avian predators have little to gain in these situations other than aggravation. Nevertheless, despite being rooted in some truth, Franklin’s description is still quite misleading and incomplete.

Bald eagles are generally aggressive birds. As the founding father acknowledges, they confront and hassle ospreys for their fish. Yet he conspicuously fails to mention that bald eagles also will tangle with their own kind. For instance, they are known to engage in bloody territorial battles. In addition, these raptors will assault other large birds. Not long ago, one attacked a Canada goose, the skirmish documented in a series of photographs.

Franklin’s last gripe regards eagles by and large, and could be related to the birds’ popularity as heraldic figures. His Exhibit C dismisses the bald eagle simply because eagles in general are “found in all countries.” Though he does not build on this point, what the founding father may be alluding to is the eagle’s extensive history as an emblem of ancient empires and aristocratic cultures. For Franklin, such imperial associations, though involving other species, possibly make the bald eagle—and even the golden eagle for that matter—an inappropriate symbol for a democratic nation.

Is There a Better Bird?

When dismissing the bald eagle, Ben Franklin looks to another bird, one he considers “much more respectable.” This is the turkey. Despite conceding the fowl “a little vain and silly,” Franklin asserts that it is fearless enough to defend its farmyard from “a grenadier of the British guards.” Sure, a laughable claim for some, but wild turkeys have indeed been known to attack humans, sometimes even going after mailmen and police officers. The domesticated variety aren’t as intimidating, but don’t underestimate them.

The gobbler has had its share of fans, John James Audubon being the most high-profile. He used the male wild turkey’s image, along with the motto “America My Country,” for his personal seal.6 Yet, unlike Franklin, Audubon had positive things to say about the bald eagle. In his Birds of America, he describes the raptor as a “noble bird” of “great strength, daring, and cool courage.”7 Why shouldn’t both the wild turkey and the bald eagle, large and formidable creatures found throughout much of the United States, be deserving of respect?

The bald eagle/turkey debate unfortunately has long taken on a life of its own. Many people want to choose sides; however, I’d highly recommend not doing so without considering the subject and context of Franklin’s letter. First, he never advocates replacing the bald eagle on the U.S. Great Seal with the turkey. Second, his missive was prompted not by an issue he had with the seal, but by a controversial plan of the Society of the Cincinnati, an American Revolutionary War veterans group. Franklin was concerned that this organization would become, in his words, “an order of hereditary knights.” His letter is devoted to this topic, and the tangents he makes (such as the one involving the bald eagle) are all related to his attack on the organization’s proposal.

What specifically provoked Franklin’s ire was the Society of the Cincinnati’s plan “of establishing ranks of nobility” by bequeathing membership and medals to the current members’ descendants. Like the Great Seal, the medals do feature an eagle. Perhaps Franklin would not have even aired his opinions on the bald eagle or the turkey if not for those medals. The reason he appears to bring up the matter at all is to concur with other critics that the group’s design “looks more like a turkey,” something—if you take Franklin’s words at face value—he actually favors. Perhaps, though, he was being facetious.

A Winning Verdict

Since Franklin’s letter heavily mingles wit, charm, and wisdom, it is questionable at times whether he is being wholly serious or, in parts, satirical. Consider, too, that he was living an ocean away from his fellow citizens. Isn’t it possible that he may have attempted to stir some controversy over the Great Seal to maximize attention to his letter? After all, he clearly had a much more important matter in mind than avian emblematic figures.

Ultimately, let’s not make too much out of Franklin’s commentary on the bald eagle and the turkey. Both are beautiful birds in their own ways and worthy of celebration year-round and during the Fourth of July!

Sources:

  1. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. “The Great Seal of the United States.” Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2003. p. 1: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/27807.pdf.
  2. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. p. 2.
  3. Anderson, SH. The Most Splendid Carpet. Philadelphia, PA: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1978: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/inde/anderson/chap5a.htm.
  4. Rising, G. “Benjamin Franklin Talks Turkey” [article includes Franklin’s letter in its entirety]. Nature Watch University at Buffalo: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw98/franklinturkey.html.
  5. The “king bird” and similar epithets (e.g., “regulus” and “little king”) have been used since antiquity to describe wren species. However, a better candidate in this case is the eastern kingbird. Since Franklin is also using the term as a metaphor for the British king, he could have had some other bird in mind.
  6. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. p. 273.
  7. Audubon, JJ. “White-headed Eagle,” The Birds of America. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/white-headed-eagle.