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The bald eagle's wings of freedom

The noble bird is an ideal symbol of America.

By Nick Thomas / July 3, 2008

Majestic: A bald eagle circles over the Arkansas River.

Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle/AP/File

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People have always admired the eagle. The ancient Sumerians, the Romans, and Napoleon all borrowed the awe-inspiring bird as a symbol of their own greatness. So it is not difficult to see why, some 230 years ago, the bald eagle was adopted as an official emblem of the United States. It was a natural choice for a proud, young nation about to spread its own wings of freedom and make its mark on the world.

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Bald eagles are, of course, anything but bald. "Bald" is a derivation of balde, an Old English word meaning "white." The bald eagle was named by colonists who admired its glorious white head and neck feathers. But not all early leaders revered the bald eagle. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin said the bald eagle "is a bird of bad moral character.... [H]e is a rank coward: The little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for ... America.... [T]he turkey is ... a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

If Franklin's view had prevailed, wild turkeys would have appeared on the Great Seal of the United States, on US coinage, bank notes, stamps, and other symbols of America. The entire culture of the country might have evolved very differently:

Eagle Scouts might today be called Turkey Scouts, while golfers hitting a rare three holes under par would exclaim, "A double turkey!"

Even the American space program would've been affected. When Neil Armstrong sent the first message from the Apollo 11 lunar module after landing on the moon in 1969, he surely would have choked on the words, "The Turkey has landed!"

Franklin's dislike of the bald eagle was due to a misunderstanding of its behavior. Small birds are no threat to bald eagles. But the eagles are often chased by their smaller relatives attempting to protect their young. This misinterpretation led to Franklin's belief that the eagle lacked courage.

As it sweeps down from lofty mountain peaks, the bald eagle's wings of freedom cast a shadow of beauty across the land. The great bird's proud independence will always be a powerful symbol that embodies the strength and freedom of America.

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