America Letter: Bald eagle proves it is no Thanksgiving turkey

Up close, the national bird of the United States shows why it is a symbol of strength

'Freedom', an American bald eagle, is being used in presentations in US classrooms about the importance of helping preserve the natural ecosystem. Video: Simon Carswell


The US National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million turkeys were eaten on Thanksgiving Day last Thursday. In a recent survey, it also found that 88 per cent of Americans eat turkey on the holiday every year.

These are strong grounds to make the turkey – as one of the country’s founding fathers Benjamin Franklin wanted – the US’s national bird. Franklin was a little hard on the country’s chosen bird, the bald eagle, when he wrote to his daughter in 1784 saying he wished it had not been picked as the “representative of our country”.

“He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly,” Franklin wrote, calling the bird lazy and a “rank coward” and accusing him of stealing fish from the “diligent” hawk.

“For the truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America,” Franklin wrote. “He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.”

Walking down to the West Wing of the White House on Wednesday to witness President Barack Obama’s annual turkey-pardoning ceremony, a bird of prey could be seen soaring above, flying south towards the National Mall and the Washington Monument.

Gliding raptor

Sure, the gobbling turkey is a logical choice for national bird, feeding so many Americans as it does, but it is hard not to be inspired by the sight of a gliding raptor overhead. It wasn’t a bald eagle, but it appeared to be a cousin of that distinguished creature.

“I have seen red-tailed hawks right downtown,” says Jo Santiago, a migratory bird specialist with the US Forest Service. “The mall offers an open area where they like to soar.”

Santiago is a regular visitor to Washington DC – a city well known for its political hawks and doves – for her educational and motivational presentations. Resident in rural West Virginia, she looks after raptors that have been injured. Most birds that come to her retreat have been hit by cars. Others have been injured by gunshots.

Among the five raptors living with her are Ty, a red-tailed hawk, Obadiah, an eastern screech owl, and a recent addition, Freedom, a bald eagle, on loan from the American Eagle Federation in Tennessee. The birds have permanent injuries so cannot be released back into the wild.

Santiago moves most carefully when Freedom is on her arm as she did when she gave one of her presentations to a group of schoolchildren in Washington DC this month.

“The experience is distinctly different and more powerful seeing one from just a few feet away than seeing one way up high in the sky,” she says afterwards.


The pupils of Maury Elementary School in Capitol Hill gasped loudly when Santiago lifted Freedom out of his box – and even more loudly later when he tried to fly away.

Tethered to her arm, Freedom demonstrates why the bald eagle was picked as an ambassador for the country and as a symbol of strength.

“They are very, very strong. He is a small southern male. He is on the smaller side. He is seven pounds but he is a still powerful bird. He can’t quite lift me off the ground but sometimes it feels like I am going to become airborne,” she says.

A half-century ago, the bald eagle was threatened with extinction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there were just 487 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963. The banning of the poison DDT in 1972 helped the species to recover, to the point where annual surveys were no longer deemed to be necessary after 2000. The bald eagle was taken off the endangered list in 2007.

Freedom and Santiago’s other birds help her illustrate how raptors are “an essential component of making our ecosystem healthy for us”.

On the road for 26 years, she has given presentations in 14 states, in cities as far apart as Milwaukee and Atlanta. Among the audiences for her presentations are wounded military veterans in hospitals.

“I tell people now that the birds are wounded they are more powerful than when they weren’t,” she says.

Changed attitudes

Her injured birds have helped changed the attitudes of those who previously saw the raptors as vermin.

“One man, a very rough-looking individual, said to me, ‘I used to shoot these birds. I can see now it was a stupid thing to do and I am not going to do it any more’, and he just walked off,” says Santiago.

“These birds have probably saved the lives of thousands of their own kind because it changed attitudes. That is how they are powerful.”

For Freedom, this really is an honest living, proving Benjamin Franklin wrong.

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