Bald Eagle may not be the best national bird

The Bald Eagle is off the endangered species list and quite abundant in Virginia. It is finally safe to discuss whether the eagle is a fitting national symbol.

Because of the Bald Eagle’s habit of eating mainly carrion and robbing Osprey of their hard-earned catch, Ben Franklin was an early critic. In a letter to his daughter he wrote of the Bald Eagle, “… like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.”

One might look at our current situation in Washington — new corruption investigations announced weekly, disgraced cabinet officials resigning left and right, and a cowardly Congress standing by doing nothing — and conclude that the aggressively dishonest Bald Eagle was, in fact, an accurate representation of our government.

Do you want a national symbol that knows how to stand up for itself, but with a quiet intelligence that demands respect? The Great Horned Owl could make America great again. These adaptive owls have prospered in cities and countryside despite being substantial beasts of the sort usually unable to thrive around humans.

Their favored prey are skunks and rabbits, but they will eat cats left outside at night, as well as rats, squirrels or anything else unlucky enough to be out too late. These giant, ubiquitous predators are nearly invisible, yet their booming winter mating call echoes across amber waves of grain, purple mountains and fruited plains, as well as deserts, grasslands, forests, suburbs and cities. Wouldn’t an owl’s wise face look great on our coins?

Perhaps the Eastern Towhee should be a better national symbol for hard-working Americans. Its rufous-black-and-white plumage is so spectacular that one forgets its humble sparrow origins. Towhees are a bird of the people, tirelessly scratching away at the dirt to find food, singing a clear but simple song, and minding their own business unless someone tries to steal a seed.

Would the American Robin perhaps be a more appropriate choice for suburban voters? Robins are perky, handsome, reliable and domestic. So what if they eat worms? Robins are ornithological dynamos — harbingers of spring, friend of the lawn and never shy about showing their preference for minivan windshields.

But we are, after all, a nation of immigrants, so why not select the European Starling as our national symbol?

One hundred starlings from Europe were released in Central Park in New York in 1890-91 in an attempt to bring all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the United States. They have spread across the nation, even to Alaska, and now number in the hundreds of millions.

While starlings have been blamed for all sorts of crimes, from killing bluebirds to evicting woodpeckers, there is little scientific evidence to support such claims. Instead, these interesting and beautiful birds may be scapegoats that society blames to avoid facing the real culprits, such as suburban sprawl, free-range cats and overuse of pesticides.

If you have better suggestions for our national bird, please email me and I may feature your creativity in a future column.

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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