On June 20, 1782, the U.S. Second Continental Congress established the bald eagle as our national bird, chosen as a symbol of virtue, purity, innocence, power, bravery, justice and perseverance. Founding father Benjamin Franklin venomously disagreed with the choice, taking a dim view of what he considered the bird’s bad moral character and lack of courage.
By Gordy J. Krahn
Editor, Turkey & Turkey Hunting
“For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country,” he told anyone who would listen. “He does not get his living honestly and he is a rank coward: The little king bird — not bigger than a sparrow — attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.” Franklin argued that the wild turkey was a much more respectable bird and better represented “… a true original native of America.” His arguments were thus noted, and then in the spirit of the country’s fledgling democratic process, majority consensus prevailed. The bald eagle was in — the wild turkey was out.
While you won’t find its likeness on federal reserve bank notes, the Great Seal of the United States or our National Emblem, the wild turkey eventually went on to become the poster child for wildlife conservation. During pre-colonial times, turkeys were abundant — some estimates as high as 10 million birds. But by the early 1900s, they appeared to be on the road toward extinction, as unregulated hunting and widespread logging had wiped them out over much of their range. But through aggressive conservation efforts — spearheaded by the National Wild Turkey Federation, and largely funded by sportsmen’s dollars — the wild turkey made an incredible comeback to the nearly 7 million birds that exist today in 49 U.S. states, several Canadian provinces and parts of Mexico.
In many areas, hunters who never dreamed of pursuing wild turkeys could now chase them in their “back yards.” Areas such as eastern Nebraska, where just a decade ago turkey licenses were available by limited-entry only, are now open to any hunter, resident or not, who wants to buy one (or more) turkey licenses over the counter. And so it goes in many states across turkey country.
And what was once just a reason to get outside during the early months of the year, now supports a full-fledged subset of the outdoor industry, with media and manufacturers solely dedicated to chasing the wild turkey. Among the thousands of products available, there are a plethora of lifelike decoys; special-purpose turkey hunting shotguns and their ammunition counterparts; camo clothing, portable chairs, box calls, diaphragm calls, friction calls, oh, my!
OK, so Big Ben didn’t get his way and the wild turkey got snubbed as our national bird. But it’s probably a good thing. I have a difficult time imagining Neil Armstrong stepping off of Apollo 11 onto the surface of the moon on July 16, 1969, and exclaiming, “The turkey has landed!”