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Vail Daily column: Hail to the turkey

Each state has its symbols: state bird, state tree, even state dinosaurs. These are often indicative of a common inhabitant or visitor, but they don’t really carry much weight. No one says to me, “Oh you’re from Kansas? You must love to sing like the meadowlark, and stand firm in water like the cottonwood!”

But when it came to representing an entire nation, our founding fathers had a clear intention. This would be a symbol recognized across the globe that embodied the power and spirit of a people. Only something brave, bold, courageous and graceful would suffice. For these reasons it was clear which animal they had to choose: the wild turkey.

Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, global citizen, musician and all around genius, once conducted a comparison of the bald eagle and the wild turkey. His distaste was not so much for the eagle as it was for a private club, the Society for the Cincinnati, which had also chosen the bald eagle for its seal. Its poorly designed eagle graphic reminded Franklin of a turkey, spawning the comparison. Bald eagles are scavengers, feasting on the work of more proactive creatures and can be shooed away by a flock of much smaller birds (seemingly not very courageous).



WHAT IF?



The turkey on the other hand, though “vain and silly,” will gladly fight off a predator and always hold their brave heads astutely. Even though this was merely a stab at the ill-advised Society for the Cincinnati, it still beckons the question: What if the wild turkey had become our national bird?

As Franklin described in his letter, turkeys are courageous and proud. Also, they have fed many an American over the ages. I have often pitied the state the settlers were in when they eventually succumbed to eating this big, strange-looking bird. Fortunately for them, this fat flier was quite tasty and abundant!

Turkeys thrived in their native America, feasting on acorns, nuts, seeds and fruits of the many hardwood trees found in its habitat. But by the late 1800s, as the settlers cleared forests for agriculture and hunted, turkey populations actually became threatened.



Thanks to restoration projects in the mid-1900s, they now thrive in 49 states (sorry Alaska), sticking to the edges of woods and foraging in large flocks. Had this astute avian become the representative of the nation, would we still eat it? Would it become sacred, something to be given the right-of-way? Would we stand in patriotic awe as this goofy gobbler fluttered clumsily into a nearby tree?

SYMBOL OF PEACE AND PROSPERITY

Turkeys may lack the intensity of the bald eagle, but the noble birds do have a beard coming off their chest (how macho is that?), so other nations would likely be just as intimidated. The bearded bird is also quite intelligent, capable of memorizing every detail of large tracts of land. Plus, it would be a symbol of our abundant food supply, a symbol of peace and prosperity.

It took several committees before the bald eagle was chosen for the Great Seal and there were other choices like the rattlesnake, dove and even a phoenix on fire. Personally, I think a flaming phoenix is hard to beat, but if you have ever stared into the face of a bald eagle, you know why our founders made this decision. If you have ever watched one soar over your head, and felt their immense size, you know why.

This Thanksgiving, whether you succumb to the typical tryptophan treat, the tofurkey or the turducken, think about our representative of freedom and wonder what our flag would look like with the head of a turkey on it, wondrous wattle waving in the wind.

Kyle Groen is a naturalist at Walking Mountain Science Center, where he leads interpretive hikes, educates the public and shovels the sidewalks.


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