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Choosing Our National Bird


Dear Bird Folks,

It’s been written that Benjamin Franklin wasn’t excited about the Bald Eagle being our national bird. Do you agree with Franklin? What are your thoughts on this?

– Ray, Chatham, MA


I messed up the calendar, Ray,

I received your question back in May, but purposely set it aside. I thought this topic would make the perfect column for the Fourth of July. (You know, the day in which many Americans celebrate their patriotism by sitting in beach traffic.) However, I just realized that I did the math wrong and submitted this column too late. As a result, it won’t be printed until a few days after the Fourth. What a bonehead. Oh, well. When you read this, just pretend it’s the Fourth…that’s if you’re not still stuck in beach traffic.

I’m a big fan of Benjamin Franklin. He’s a Massachusetts guy, a Founding Father and even worked for the post office, which is never easy. He was also a statesman, an inventor, and in his spare time, he enjoyed kite flying. He was a true renaissance man (probably because he actually was born during the Renaissance).

However, I have to disagree with Franklin on the national bird thing. I think the Bald Eagle was the perfect selection. What would have been a better choice? The cardinal? Cut it out. The pelican? Come on, even pelicans laugh at pelicans. The Owl? Nobody sees them. The chickadee? Thanks, but no. A Hummingbird? Ha, that would be cute…and ridiculous. For better or worse, the United States is a big and powerful country and the Bald Eagle is a big and powerful bird, and an excellent pick for our national bird. Sorry, Benny.

In 1776, the Continental Congress set up a committee in an effort to design an official national seal. As is the case with most committees, there was much discussion, but nothing ever got done. Eventually, Congress’s secretary, Charles Thompson, pieced together many of the committee’s suggestions and produced what would become the Great Seal of the United States. It featured a Bald Eagle holding thirteen arrows in one hand (talons) and an olive branch in the other. Done and done.

I’m not sure why there was so much debate on the subject. What’s not to like about eagles? Except for the mottled youngsters, which look like “dump gulls,” Bald Eagles are stately and majestic birds. With a wingspan of seven feet and weighing over ten pounds, Bald Eagles are one of the largest raptors in the world. Plus, they are truly North American birds, found in every U.S. state, aside from the one with all the lava and rainbows. They have spectacular courtship displays and the couples tend to mate for life. (How many folks reading this can say that?) One of the main raps against the Bald Eagle is its sissy voice. I can’t argue with this one. Such a massive bird shouldn’t sound like a cross between a chipmunk and the late Michael Jackson. Others complain about the birds’ habit of eating carrion. Oh, give me a break. Who doesn’t like leftovers? They are the best.

The title of “national bird” meant the eagle’s image would be on flags, stationery and money, but it didn’t protect the bird from idiots. Over the years, thousands of eagles have been shot by farmers, fishermen and by people who just like to shoot stuff. By 1940, things had gotten so bad that Congress actually had to pass the Eagle Protection Act. This act saved the bird, right? No, not really. Right after we stopped the shooting, we introduced something even more problematic, DDT. By the 1960s, fewer than 500 pairs of eagles were left in the lower forty-eight (that number was once 100,000). Things became so bleak President Kennedy wrote that something needed to be done. Ironically, it was JFK’s old nemesis, Richard Nixon, and his signing of the Endangered Species Act that finally put the Bald Eagle on the road to recovery. Good job, Tricky Dicky…at least in this case.

The eagles in Massachusetts have had a particularly tough time. No eagles had nested here since 1905. But then in 1982, a combined effort of Mass Fish and Wildlife and Mass Audubon brought in a few eagle chicks from Michigan and Canada (remember back when Canada was our friend?). The chicks were placed in special towers that were located in a remote area of the Quabbin Reservoir. The birds where fed by “hand,” via eagle puppets, in order to trick the eaglets into thinking they were being raised by real eagles. And believe it or not, the ploy worked. Several years after being released, the birds (now adults) returned and started their own eagle families. Over the following years more and more eagles returned, and now as many as fifty-one Bald Eagle nests can be found throughout the Bay State. High five!

Are there any Bald Eagles nesting on Cape Cod? Yes, we think so. According to the rumor mill, there is at least one, and perhaps two nests here on the Cape. Unfortunately, both nest sites are on private land and thus their exact whereabouts is being kept under wraps. Although, I can tell you that the locations are on this side of the Canal, if that helps. With no disrespect to Mr. Franklin, Ray, I think the Bald Eagle is a swell choice for our national bird. Its silly voice aside, it meets all of the requirements. But what do I know? I can’t even figure out how to use a calendar.