How an American Myth Took Flight

From a Wall Street Journal review by Bill Heavey of the book by Jack E. Davis titled “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird”

It’s commonly believed that Benjamin Franklin would have preferred the wild turkey as America’s national bird. In a letter addressed to his daughter, he branded the bald eagle a “rank coward” and a bird of “bad moral character” because it feeds on the meat of dead animals and steals food from other birds. He admitted that the turkey was a “vain and silly” creature but still deemed it a “much more respectable” candidate. Franklin was, of course, anthropomorphizing the wild birds by the moral standards of his time, a misguided practice that continues to this day. It is only through the human lens that a pig is greedy, a donkey stubborn or a fox sly.

There is more to Franklin’s story. At the time of his writing, he was incensed by the Society of the Cincinnati, which had been formed to commemorate the officers of the Revolutionary War. The society included in its iconography the bald eagle. It also, more significantly, excluded Franklin from its membership. So it’s easy to imagine Franklin, who admitted he was fond of “prattling, punning and joking,” writing a polemic aimed at the bald eagle….This was a man who seldom put quill to paper without an eye toward public consumption—and if it meant taking an elitist society to task, all the better.

Then there’s John James Audubon, our most famous ornithologist and the author of the enduring “Birds of America.” Like Franklin, Audubon found the bald eagle to be cowardly and tyrannical. “Suffer me, kind reader,” he wrote, “to say how much I grieve that [the bald eagle] should have been selected as the Emblem of my Country.” Audubon killed a great many balds with his fowling gun….

In “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird,” Jack E. Davis sets out to puncture the popular myths about the eagle and to write “a comprehensive account of a singular avian species and its relationship with a nation and its people.” Historically, Mr. Davis tells us, Americans have had a violently bifurcated attitude toward the eagle—venerating it as a national symbol “representing fidelity, self-reliance, strength, and courage” while all but exterminating the creature itself. “The bald eagle,” Mr. Davis reminds us, “has been associated with higher principles and better attributes since 1782, when Congress made it the central figure on the Great Seal of the United States.” Soon bald eagles could be found adorning everything from architecture to currency, ornaments, knick-knacks and corporate logos….r.

“False accusations fostered a cross-eyed vision of a morally depraved predator and thief, and degenerate scavenger—a bird more corrupt than the pilfering garden crow,” Mr. Davis tells us. One of the enduring myths around the bald eagle is the notion that it routinely snatches defenseless animals—and not only lambs, pigs or calves. From time immemorial there have been stories about eagles carrying off human babies. An early silent movie, “Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest” (1908), feeds this ancient fear, depicting a bald eagle, flapping its wire-controlled wings, as it steals an infant and hoists it into the sky. The heroic father in the film…eventually bludgeons the prop eagle to death, throwing it off a cliff before joyfully reuniting with his child.

More than 100 years later, a 2012 video created by animation students in Canada showed much the same scene. That video was quickly exposed as a hoax, but not before it garnered two million hits on YouTube in its first 24 hours. Mr. Davis is unable to find any variation on this myth that stands up to examination. The problem is that the real bird maxes out at about 14 pounds (for a very large female, which, on average, is 20% larger than a male) and can’t lift more than half its weight. An eagle’s bread and butter is fish, although there are stories of eagles carrying off small cats….

Yet even as the bird itself was under assault, it’s difficult to overstate the potency and popularity of the eagle as a national symbol. We put it on coins and coffee mugs, banners and belt buckles. Remember the screaming eagle that opened “The Colbert Report”? That was actually the call of a red-tailed hawk, used to make the eagle sound more intimidating—an old Hollywood trick. The real call of the bald is too feeble: a high-pitched, chittering squeak that sounds like a plea for some WD-40.

Then there was Old Abe, perhaps the country’s most fabled eagle. Born in 1861 and secured from an Ojibwa trader for a bushel of corn, he was carried into battle during the Civil War as a living mascot by a regiment from Wisconsin. Gens. Grant, Sherman and McPherson doffed their hats upon encountering the bird in the field. Old Abe eventually became so well-known that P.T. Barnum offered to buy him.

“The Bald Eagle” is an impressive work of scholarship by Mr. Davis, a professor of history at the University of Florida who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”… Mr. Davis succeeds in making the history of the bird accessible to general readers.

At the same time, there are parts of it that read like a textbook….But if you have any questions about our national bird, Mr. Davis’s “The Bald Eagle” is a great place to look for answers.

Bill Heavey is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland

Speak Your Mind