Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A noble eagle or a scavenger ugly bird?

After the American Independence War, the Continental Congress of the recently created United States decided it was imperative to create a set of symbols to represent the new nation. Among them, a committee was designated to ellaborate the design of the future American Great Seal, since used for representation of the coat of arms and the president, as well as other institutions. This committee was composed by three men: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
One of the hottest arguments between the two latter was about choosing a bird to be included in the symbol, so that it represented the spirit and the moral of the new nation. Jefferson proposed the bald eagle as such, an endemic bird in North America, with an arrogant, vigilant look. A bird with this appearance, he thought, cannot be but a noble and brave one.

A bird with not much of a noble behaviour

However, if we observe the citations made by biologists and naturalists about the behaviour of this bird, such as the works of Mark Catesby and Meriwether Lewis, we can realie that this bird is actually all except noble and brave.
The bald eagle is a carnivore, not a good hunter though. It nearly always feeds of carrion from dead animals or rests abandoned by an imperial eagle. When it eats fish, it usually gets close to the tracks of migration for salmons, and catches those dead on their way. Or it just waits patiently that an osprey, very skilful in catching fishes on the fly but smaller than the bald eagle, fetches a fish, and then steal its food. However, it never dares to fight an imperial eagle, while they are the same size.


Benjamin Franklin never supported the bald eagle for the United States symbol. He said about it, in a letter to his daughter, that "it is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him." Franklin proposed the turkey as the symbol, a truly brave and arrogant bird according to him.
The 20th June 1784, the Congress supported Jefferson and approved the bald eagle as part of the Seal. Did Jefferson suspect what would the American relations be like towards politically weaker countries, and in the contrary, in situations in which it would compete with someone with its same size? The extermination wars against American natives, economic fagocitation of South America, predation with oil resources, sale of weapons to countries in civil war... and at the same time, negation of inconditional help to Europe during the Nazi invasion, the political game played with the Soviet Union (another bald eagle, but a bit more foolish), or the likely little heroic retreat from Irak... Actually, the bald eagle is perfect for this symbol. What a black humour, Jefferson.


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