Morris: The Bald Eagle

January 25, 2021

by Leo Morris

I noticed in a couple of recent news reports that Indiana has been made safe again for the bald eagle, which is a simple piece of good news worth celebrating in this era riven by an angry partisan divide and political revenge disguised as a plea for unity.

The eagle, a bird that nests exclusively in North America, was once plentiful but nearly extinct nationwide by the mid-20th century and nowhere to be seen in Indiana. But a vast public-private effort brought the bird back from the brink. It was reintroduced to Indiana in the mid-1980s and can now be found in 88 of our 92 counties.

And in December, this fierce bird of prey, symbol of America’s freedom and independence, was removed from Indiana’s list of endangered species.

It is not true, by the way, that the eagle, thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, nearly lost out to the turkey as America’s emblem on The Great Seal. That is what nowadays we would call Fake News.

The myth started with a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter Sarah in 1784, in which he lamented the fact that the bald eagle had been chosen as the country’s symbol, because it was “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from the fishing hawk and is “too lazy to fish for himself.”

The turkey, on the other hand, was “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” 

In the letter, Franklin was actually complaining about a new medal issued by the Society of the Cincinnati, an association of Continental Army veterans, which included an eagle that looked more like a turkey to Franklin. 

In other words, he was just being a wisecracking jerk in typical Franklin fashion. Today, he would have tweeted out the observation and found himself banned from Facebook and hauled before Congress on sedition charges.

The true story of the eagle’s selection is both more interesting and more depressing, because, frankly, it puts some of our Founders in a bad light. 

At the Second Continental Congress, a committee of three – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin, our wisest statesmen, allegedly three of the smartest men ever to sit together in one room – was named to design a national seal. Pathetically, what they came up with was what we might expect today from high school sophomores charged with designing the sets for the senior play.

Franklin proposed a biblical scene featuring Moses and Pharaoh. Jefferson wanted to show the children of Israel and two Anglo-Saxon mythical figures. Adams wanted the seal to depict Hercules.

Two more committees and six years later, an exasperated Congress finally gave the job to a single man, Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, and approved his eagle idea without even seeing a design of it. There’s an important lesson in there somewhere.

Franklin, in case you are wondering, did have one idea of an animal for the National Seal – the rattlesnake, an “emblem of vigilance” that “never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders.” It “appears to be a most defenseless animal,” but its wounds, “however small, are decisive and fatal,” and it never wounds until having “generously given notice.”

He wasn’t really that fond of turkeys, though, except as an entrée. He electrocuted scores of them during his celebrated electricity experiments, before he got around to that whole key-and-a-kite thing, including the time when he learned the hard way about grounding when he zapped himself as well as the bird. Think about that next Thanksgiving.

And just in case you are puzzled about how we allowed the national symbol to become nearly extinct, it was because of hunting, the loss of habitat and, many history sites assure us, the indiscriminate us of DDT. But the eagle was brought back after Rachel Carlson bravely wrote “Silent Spring,” detailing how the pesticide would destroy the planet, and William Ruckelshaus, the Hoosier who was the first head of the EPA, led the crusade to ban it. Through the marriage of science and politics, the Earth was saved and the eagle soared again.

But, uh-oh, might be a little more Fake News there. Turns out the evils of DDT were greatly exaggerated; yes, it was a toxin that could be misused, but it did not pose a grave threat to humans or other living things, including eagles and other birds. The use of DDT had largely eliminated malaria, which was lethal for millions of people, and its ban has made malaria again a killer to be feared.

In other news:

The party of science is back in charge of Washington. President Biden has issued executive orders returning U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord, a treaty that has never been approved by the Senate, and allowing people who are one gender but identify as the other to use whichever school bathroom they choose. The senior plays are surely being prepared, with the sophomores   diligently working on the set decorations.

Gov. Holcomb has grown a beard, presumably to make himself look smarter and wiser; I can say this because it is why I grew mine, 40 years ago. He has appointed the state’s first ever equity, inclusion and opportunity officer, who will be tasked with assuring that all Hoosiers, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or bathroom preference, have an equal shot at the public trough.

And the Indiana General Assembly is considering a proposal to make popcorn the official state snack.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


Leave a Reply