Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey the national bird of America. And it would have been a fine choice: they’re magnificent creatures, proud, ancient and, well, truly wild.
If you want to know just how incredible turkeys are, read Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto, one of my top reads of last year. His account of imprinting two broods of wild turkeys and his unconventional family’s first year in the Florida woods will probably make you envy the turkeys’ world so much you’ll want to be a wild turkey. The author was certainly struggling with his own species identity after a while: by his account even grasshoppers began to look pretty appetizing.
But there’s a big problem with the idea of a wild turkey as the focus of national identity, and that’s the existence of non-wild turkeys. The polar opposite of the free-living turkey is the beaten, battered, bizarre-breasted white domestic fowl, living a short, pointless life of captivity and pain in order that we might furnish our festive tables, whether at Thanksgiving or Christmas, with pound after pound of tasteless white meat. Hardly an image a nation that sets such store by its #1 status would want to project. I can’t see a turkey shape being so easily adopted into posturing patriotic presidential campaign symbolism, either. So in the end, it’s probably best that poultry was overruled in favour of the bald eagle: a much more fitting symbol of the United States’ modern incarnation as the free-living, empire-building, world-dominating top dog.
Back at Blackwater refuge in Maryland, eagles were in very good supply, especially one perched low over the road in front of us. I alighted from the vehicle and approached, binoculars raised. Closer, and closer, until I could feel the hairs start to raise on my neck: this was a new experience, sharing space with a wild animal big and powerful enough to give me justified cause for nervousness. Not that an eagle attack was likely, or even plausible, but my long-evolved instincts were trying to tell me otherwise: here was a creature with bowel-shredding, diamond-tipped talons, and too many inches of murderous yellow flesh-ripping beak. There, there. Nice birdie. Bald eagles are, whichever way you look at them, birds that stop you in your tracks. Or if you’re a roosting bird of watery habitats, a fearsome shadow that sends you winging for safety.
Whilst watching wildfowl and gulls on Jug Bay during the last day of our recent trip, the resting geese suddenly rose up in one flock, thousands strong — a sight enough by itself. Expecting a peregrine, as I would if watching a similar estuary in Britain, I scanned the skies and picked up a familiar soaring black and white shape, high enough that I hadn’t spotted it without assistance: the geese have better eyes than I. Almost at the same time I saw a second off to the right, riding the air rapidly down towards the water, wings back and undercarriage lowered much like the rather larger bird I was destined to ride home later that day. With an astounding turn of speed, the second followed (I barely could), until just a minute after I’d first spotted one practically in the stratosphere, the two were perched together on a small mud-flat, casting warning glances left and right across their kingdom. A Canada goose is probably no more eagle prey than I am (happier sticking with fish, I reckon), but like me they know their place.
Just a few reasons why eagles, and this white-headed, white-tailed national bird of America in particular, are brilliant. It was, in particular, very good to see a bird that had so suffered at our hands in past decades restored to a position of seeming dominance (and instructive to see them quite commonly inhabiting a densely populated, much-farmed state — would white tailed eagles in East Anglia really cause such problems?). The sorrows of the past betray the real power relationship of our era — it is really we who tell the eagles where to go, not vice versa — but try looking one in the eye and telling it that. Like Joe’s turkeys, I’d say they probably know something about the world that we forgot long ago.
I may have overlooked one further and more obvious reason why I’m fond of bald eagles. The clue is in the name; I suppose that means I have an affinity with them, or sympathy, though in truth the ‘bald’ eagle is nothing of the sort — that blazing white head is just a distinguished sign of age, which takes him (or her) four or five years to develop. It’s a spotless crown fit for emperors alone. When my baldness finally establishes itself, I fully intend it to be similarly distinguished, but somehow I suspect people won’t be glorying in my majesty in the same way they might that of an eagle. To them, I’ll only ever be able to look in one direction. Up.
P.S. On a completely unrelated note, I thought I should point out proudly that this is one of the only posts I’ve ever completed (and posted!) whilst traveling by train, something that is getting more and more difficult with every jolt, and every minute that passes since my last cup of tea. Pity me. Although I’ve seen eleven species of bird so far, and counting, so at least that’s some consolation.