We were writing blog posts about the history of the American flag and ran into stories about some fascinating birds and animals.
How were these beasts relevant to the story of the United States?
Here’s a look at some with especially striking histories and tales.
- Bald eagle
- Black Bear
The bald eagle and a snake appeared on early renditions of flags as our country was coming into being. That was really interesting!
Eager to learn more, we looked them up and became aware of how many times the creatures of nature have been important symbols and representations of the United States.
Something that became especially enlightening to us was that many of these birds and beasts are pretty fierce. For tokens of our nation, our forefathers didn’t pick out any pansies! Well, except for Smokey Bear. But he is friendly for a reason.
Of all on this list, probably the most consistently thought of as a representation of the U.S. is the bald eagle.
It is the national bird and is also prominently pictured on the Great Seal of the United States.
Take a look at the back of your one dollar bill. There it is!
A different version (not the Great Seal) is on the reverse of some quarters.
The style of the image that is on the quarters is that of the Presidential Coat of Arms. It was used for years, until 1999.
It has also been on a variety of coins and many other government images.
The Great Seal: What’s your choice – eagle or turkey?
The Great Seal was designed and adopted by the Continental Congress in 1782. But it wasn’t until 1789 that the magnificent looking eagle won the contest for
Hey, you would think a bald eagle would always come out ahead in a contest with a wild turkey, wouldn’t you? We did, too.
But watch this!
Many members of Congress wanted the eagle. Legend has it that none other than Ben Franklin fought in favor of the turkey. Both were felt to be native to this land, so they were equally qualified in that. Both were bald! (Just kidding.) Both were birds .. ok, enough of the similarities. We know they also had feathers…
Franklin said the turkey had better “moral character” and respectability, that the eagle was a robber. True about the eagle: it does still scavenge some of its food.
However, others did not agree with that adverse assessment of the symbol meaning. They viewed the significance of a character that stood for strength, courage, and freedom.
In 1789, the government finally accepted the bald eagle as the emblem or mascot of the fledgling U.S.
Charles Thomson, Congressional Secretary, designed the first version of the Seal. This is his
The design evolved a bit over time. The eagle did become more robust! (See an image of that in our post on the flag.)
The eagle holds in its beak the motto of the United States:
E pluribus unum.(From many, one.)
Bald eagle facts
It is large and magnificently beautiful. With its white head and tail, distinctive hooked beak in yellow, and classic brown body. Definitely large, usually weighing a dozen pounds and possessing a striking wingspan of six to seven feet. It is unique to the American continent.
The population declined during the early 20th century. Apparently there were multiple factors that lead to this: poaching, shootings by sportspeople and farmers protecting their fowl, and pesticides. By the mid-twentieth century, they were almost extinct; in 1963 fewer than 490 nesting pairs were identified.
Subsequently, due to conservation efforts, the population came back and left the endangered species list around the turn of this current century. There seem to be a healthy number of them alive today.
They are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
This presidential couple was not elected
They arrived in the Capital city and built their nest in 2015. Incredibly, they are a natural pair of bald eagles that chose to make their home and raise their kids at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Meet Mr. President and The First Lady.
While they were away on annual migration, the American Eagle Foundation put up 24/7 cameras camouflaged at their aerial dwelling which is in a tulip poplar tree that is in the Azalea Collection of the arboretum.
Visit the live eagle cam.
Here’s an edited segment from that ongoing show. In part, it shows Mr. President defending his nest.
We told you how the colonists tossed about over whether the eagle or the turkey should be our country’s mascot/ symbol. And you know the eagle won that one.
Ben Franklin, expressing avidly his preference for the choice of the turkey to be the emblem or mascot of the country, reportedly said
The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.Benjamin Franklin
The Smithsonian says this is a fine myth. Not that Franklin didn’t wax eloquent about the turkey’s fine characteristics, but that he proposed it for the official national role as
We don’t know, but it’s a good story.
The turkey may have lost out to the eagle as the primary symbol for the U.S.
But it continued to be a very popular patriotic image anyway.
This cover to the popular Leslie’s magazine at Thanksgiving time during the first World War is a great example.
Wild turkey facts
Most people have a pretty good idea of how big a turkey is. Though there is quite a range, from five to almost 20 pounds, naturally. You are probably surprised to learn how wide the wingspan can be: up to six feet.
They are very reluctant flyers, which always surprises us, since they go up in trees every night to roost! Boy, can they run, up to 20 mph.
Their life span is not that long, compared to us humans, being only up to four years. If you see them in the wild, you’ll become aware they are omnivorous (eat anything just about).
Comical and gorgeous, all at the same time
People mistakenly think of them as drab birds. That means you have never seen one nearly in nature. Because they have iridescent highlights of many colors (red, green, and gold) in their feathers.
Some people laugh about turkeys. They can be viewed as pretty comical looking. But, on the other hand, they are pretty magnificent looking. They travel in flocks, that can reach sizes of 30 or more. The males strut and display their surrounding plumage. If walking on gravel, and dragging the feathers, it makes a cool rough sound.
Everyone knows their “gobble” sound. Guess that’s why they are called “gobblers”. But they can suddenly speak, and loudly.
We all know the popularity of
Interestingly enough, funding from sportsman’s groups and money from hunting licenses and fees contributed to the effort to repopulate wide regions with wild flocks. Various conservation efforts combined to result in marked improvement in the feral populations in the ensuing decades through the middle years and later to our current day.
Thanksgiving and the bird
Today, the connection between the history of the major holiday of Thanksgiving and roasting a turkey seems obvious.
It is so ingrained in our culinary story that they cannot be separated. This particular bird is on (almost) every ad, picture, illustration, and menu each November.
The Pilgrims, having arrived in the New World on the Mayflower, celebrated their first harvest in the fall of 1621. They feasted over several days and gave thanks to God.
That festival evolved over the years and, in 1777, Congress proclaimed a holiday. No specific date was given and it was encouraged and practiced as time went by.
We don’t know if the Pilgrims ate turkey then. Turkeys were plentiful in the area and “fowl”
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln first celebrated it as a national holiday. Somehow, after that recognition, the association of turkey as the meal of choice for the Thanksgiving holiday became widespread.
A Presidential Pardon
While some earlier U.S. Presidents pardoned their Thanksgiving gift turkeys, Ronald Reagan was the first to call it that. It was George H.W. Bush who, in 1989, made it a formal affair.
Since then, each year the current President gives a reprieve to one large bird in his presence.
The relieved gobbler gets to go to the petting zoo at
It may not seem obvious to feature snakes in a post about critters important to the nation’s self-image. We would not ourselves have thought of it until we were writing our blog item about the American Flag.
Huh, what does that have to do with it, you ask? Well, check out that article of ours and have a look at the “Related questions” near the bottom.
Don’t tread on me
See that yellow background flag with the words “Don’t tread on me”? That’s right. It was called the Gadsden flag. Designed by the General in 1775, it was an emblem popular during the Revolutionary War.
You’ve probably seen this or another rendition because it came out in a variety of styles. Also, other banners bearing snake images flourished in those early decades.
There was no standard American flag yet, so colonists and individual regiments decided what to carry.
The Culpeper flag closely resembled the Gadsden flag that had been made in South Carolina. It came into being about a year later in Virginia.
The Culpeper Minutemen were in Colonel Patrick Henry’s 1775 Regiment. Notably, the flag bears the “Liberty or Death” phrase of that great leader. As well as the “Don’t tread on me” from the Gadsden work.
In the cold-blooded world of the reptiles, the venomous rattlesnake is one of the ones humans fear the most.
There are a number of kinds of these deadly pit vipers. The type the colonists met was the timber rattlesnake.
Since rattlesnakes are unique to the Americas, it is likely these humans had never seen them before.
These particular ones are known to be shy, not looking for a fight, and easily camouflaged. So, people did not encounter them as frequently as you might think. The esteem the early people settlers felt for them may stem from these characteristics. They did not fear them as much as people do varieties in our more western states.
They can be up to 5 feet long but maybe half that. Like others, they are heavy for their size. Living on rodents and other small animals and birds, they can live up to 20 years. Man is their only natural enemy. They are not well liked in general today.
That animosity and civilization’s encroachment on their habitats in woodlands has resulted in population declines. They are endangered, or at least uncommon, in several states today. But they have not needed protection in most areas.
The First Navy Jack
A striking image, that has been prominent up to modern times, is the First Navy Jack. The U.S. Navy used it until mid-2019 on the bow of ships when moored.
Exactly when the Navy started to employ this ensign is not known. It may have dated from the late 19th century, following earlier variations.
The “Don’t tread on me” snake flows across 13 horizontal stripes, seven red and six white.
It continues to be flown at the time of special happenings and remembrances. For example, to honor those who had died during the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Franklin must have loved snakes
Benjamin Franklin was a pretty ubiquitous character in those years. Don’t be surprised to learn, if you did not know it already, that he was a mighty cartoonist leading up to the war. His satire could feature rattlesnake talk or imagery as he railed in print against the British foe.
Long before the War, in the early 1750s, he published what has been called the first political cartoon in America. Now that’s an achievement! 🙂
t was actually pretty cool. It was of a snake, divided into 8 pieces. The head represented New England and the tail stood for South Carolina.
The intervening segments were the then colonies lined up in between.
Underneath, it said “JOIN, or DIE“.
Done initially as a woodcut, the image preceded and inspired the later snake flags and the importance of the reptile as a symbol of early American resistance and independence.
The rattlesnake symbolized the colonies until the end of the War for Independence
Franklin felt the symbolism of snakes to be appropriate for the New World colonists. Writing a lengthy article on the subject in 1775, he talked about the physical attributes and how they exemplified essential positive characteristics: vigilance, courage in self-defense, looks defenseless but can inflict a fatal wound … Read the original here.
It’s big and it’s nearly gone from our environment. However, the bison is almost completely entwined in our land’s image of itself.
Unlike the birds and reptile we’ve just been discussing, this animal was not prominent in the eastern reaches of the continent when the early settlers arrived from Europe.
After the American Civil War westward goers reached the grasslands of the Great Plains. It was then that most of them had their first sight of vast natural herds of these phenomenal beasts.
We’ve all read stories and seem enough pictures, images, and movie stories to be very well aware that man’s contact did not bring a happy future for these beings, nor to the Indian tribes that depended upon them.
The tale of the abuse and decline is sad and epic. Today, after near extinction, about half a million live on ranches with about 10% on conservations, almost none in the wild.
We were first taught that these animals were buffalo. Remember the song “Home on the Range”? Well, it’s all wrong. They are bison.
Cape and water buffalo are in Africa and Asia. Our kind have bigger heads and large humps, beards, and thick coats.
Yes, they are the largest mammal on our northern continent. Weight is up to 2000 pounds and height up to 11 feet.
No wonder people run from them!
But that’s difficult to do, too, since these can catch up to you at 40 mph.
The American bison and 3 U.S. Presidents
Three U.S. Presidents were pivotal in the history of the American bison.
It may not have been the most notable thing they did in office, but all had important roles in what happened to these animals.
Ulysses S. Grant dooms the herds
The first was ignominious, seriously hastening the decline. There were other factors that had already contributed to reducing the numbers of these great animals across the landscape.
However, the government (in the forms of Major General Philip Sheridan and General William Tecumseh Sherman) favored and carried out, although apparently never officially ordered, the massive hunting of bison. This, in turn, was expected to help control the Native American population. And that was the point.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Jr. starts recovery
Having hunted and killed bison in his youth, Roosevelt became a conservationist later in life. As President, still a hunter, he became the honorary president of the new American Bison Society (Bronx Zoo, New York, 1905). Thus began the effort to reintroduce these animals to the western plains.
The conservation movement has been notably successful. Although there are not millions of bison, as originally. That, of course, would not be sustainable in our modern populated America. But the numbers are “safe” and ongoing conservation efforts are positive.
Barack H. Obama II designates national mammal
We were a bit surprised to learn that the country had not determined an official national mammal in the past.
So no one had to move over to give room to the new dignity of the American bison named to that honor in 2016.
It took an act of Congress to devise the National Bison Legacy Act which Obama then signed.
The American bison is a symbol of unity, resilience and healthy lifestyles and communities.Cristian Samper, President, Wildlife Conservation Society
Smokey the Bear and friends
We know that anytime you hear the word “bear” or see the headline of a news story, you know it’s going to be important and interesting.
They are extremely interesting creatures. We, people, are fascinated by them … because they are so like us!
Here’s a video with some stories of black bear history at Yosemite National Park in California.
No question bears are scary. They are big and fierce. Raised up on their hind legs, they also attain a bit more of a human characteristic, that makes them seem even more formidable.
Black bear facts
They are pretty common, and if you’ve never seen a real one, you’ve certainly seen them in any number of home videos from people who’ve traveled into forests and encountered them. They are unique to our continent.
Like most of the animals we’ve been talking about, the advent of men’s journeys into their habitat, which was widespread over the continent, has restricted them to their main habitat.
Now they are uncommonly seen in open areas, except those adjacent to dense woods. But in most regions of our country, they are not considered endangered.
This kind of bear, unlike grizzlies, are not that aggressive. Mainly they will defend themselves. Obviously, if you get into a surprise or awkward situation with them, you can get hurt.
They are shorter than the average adult human, but most weigh hundreds of pounds. Although omnivorous, they would not choose to eat a person. Natural lifespan is often just short of 20 years.
The real Smokey Bear
But the bear we know the best is a more benign and familiar creature, cuddly in fact. Your friend and mine: Smokey (Bear).
Yes, he is an advertising logo for the National Forest Service.
Undoubtedly the most popular one in history. (Today he even has his own website.)
But there really was a Smokey Bear.
Smokey was a little 3-month-old orphaned cub found by forest rangers and firefighters during a big wildfire in the mountains of New Mexico. The year was 1950.
They got him down from a burnt pine tree, where he had suffered some significant burns on his limbs and paws. Because of that, they gave him his first name: “little
They planed him to Sante Fe, treating his injuries, and there was a lot of national interest. The news followed him.
When he was well, the National Zoo, Washington, D.C., received him. His life and image were to be devoted to publicizing the prevention of forest fires. He has done spectacularly.
Remember — Only you can prevent forest fires!Smokey Bear
Have you forgotten the Smokey the Bear song? Bet your kids know it.
It was written in 1952 by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, at the height of the fervor over the little guy.
There was especially a time for celebration in 2019, for the 75th year of Smokey’s cause.
Q & A
What “lesser” bird has a robust screech that is dubbed in movies over the bald eagle’s rather wimpy cry?
What ballroom dance was named after one of the creatures we talked about?
The “turkey trot”.
The Turkey Trot
The dance was popular in the Ragtime era. It was inspired by the quick jerky steps of the … you know what bird we are talking about!
Note: Turkey Trot is also the name of the most popular people racing event in the country. This is not just one event happening in one location. All types and length of running occasions get done all over the U.S.
We think of it as a modern phenomenon, to run on or before Thanksgiving Day, anticipating a large calorie intake at dinner time. However, it dates back a long time, too, to 1896.
What beloved animal appeared in fire prevention public service campaigns before Smokey?
Bambi, Walt Disney’s masterpiece of a movie and animated character, appeared in 1942.
Disney loaned the wonderful little deer character to the cause for a year. Along with Thumper, the rabbit, and Flower, the skunk.
Please, Mister, don’t be careless. Prevent Forest Fires. Greatersay a deer, a rabbit, and a skunk
danger than ever!
Before you go
We so hope you have enjoyed these little accounts of the birds and animals that the U.S. has picked over the years to stand for its values.
We know there are others, though these are the ones that struck us first to write about. If you think of others, please let us know!
Love animals? How about … horses! You may want to see our post about the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing.
What are these representations all about? Well they represent out core values. Be sure to look over the post re wrote that is just on that exact topic, too. Thanks!