“You were born with wings; why prefer to crawl through life?”
is a 30+ year new media development pioneer & differentiator who served several years in the US Peace Corps. His earliest political memory is arguing the merits of RFK, McCarthy, and Humphrey on the playground with his 2nd grade classmates in West Lafayette, IN. Ask him about his avatar (or maybe not).
When a nation seems to have lost its way as badly as ours has, even its most basic, most taken for granted elements should be open to question and re-examination, especially when, after the last four years in particular, we badly need to remake our collective image, both here and abroad, starting at the top. Not just at the White House, but even higher, in the skies above it, ideally from sea to shining sea.
Fifteen score and nineteen years ago, in 1782, a group of landed gentry, all white, all European, all male, mostly lawyers with more than a scattering of planters/slave-owners mixed in, no other professions represented, all over the age of trust, decided the Bald Eagle was going to be the star of our national seal, and therefore our national bird.
The actual by-the-ways of how this came to be are a bit shrouded in mystery, but we assume the usual suspects were the ultimate decision-makers, and as our French allies started saying four score and three years after ‘us’ was born, plus ça change, at least where power is concerned. So, if we take the closest modern equivalent we have to the founders, a group of exceptionally privileged white males seeking to create a new world, most likely in the offices of a freshly minted high-tech start-up on the rise, on the come, yes, and picture their decision-making process–translated back to colonial days–the fateful convo might have gone something like this, in the room where it happened:
Adams (over intercom): OK, so what about our official seal?
(Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton groan and slump)
Hamilton (looking at them): Let me take you off speaker a sec, John (picks up phone). So what are you thinking? (listening to Adams) Uh huh… Uh huh… Uh huh… Well… what are other countries using? (listening) Eagles? (looks at Madison and Jefferson; they are non-committal, glancing at each other)
Hamilton: Say more. (listens again) Golden Eagles? (Madison and Jefferson shake their heads vigorously; Madison writes something on a Post It, passes it to Hamilton)
Hamilton: John, the feeling here is that’s too Old World for us; they’re dated…what? no, they’re not retro cool, not really…and you know, we’re a new nation, and you know…yada yada yada (Madison and Jefferson look daggers at Hamilton, he shrugs).
Hamilton: (listening on phone) What? The one with the white head? (Hamilton cups phone, looks at Madison and Jefferson) What about the one with the white head?
Jefferson (haughtily, b/c of course he knows its name): You mean the Bald Eagle?
Hamilton: (shrugging) Yeah, whatever… the (air quotes) Bald (air quotes) Eagle… Does that give us the branding differentiation we need?
(Madison and Jefferson look at each other, shrug)
Hamilton: (to Adams on phone) OK, that’s a go, J.A. Have the kids mock it up.
We’d like to believe, for the sake of the founders, it happened something like this, a thoughtless ‘whatever’ decision among thousands of others to be made in the building of a new nation. Because in so many ways, the Bald Eagle is about as far away as a bird can get from the right choice to represent who we are and who we want to be. Moreover, for all of you originalists out there, Ben Franklin, the wisest founder of them all, knew it, and minced no words in saying so:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this injustice, he is never in good case but 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. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…
Fit/Unfit For A King
We’d go even further–much further–than Franklin. Let’s begin by building on the final words of his indictment, and ask ourselves what adjectives come most quickly to mind when we think of eagles? Here are some of the epithets most frequently used: Majestic, imperial, regal, royal, gilded, heraldic, noble. These are words associated with, and sometimes literally descriptive of, kings and hereditary nobility: earls, barons, dukes, and the like.
Maybe we needed those kinds of honorifics and signifiers of pedigree attached to our semiotics when we were young and struggling to establish our legitimacy as the first of our kind within the commonwealth of nations, or even for buy-in among our own people (e.g. the 40%+ who were loyal to the Crown1 in our war of independence). Maybe when we were surrounded by Old World powers, we needed to say, symbolically at least, hands off, with the fiercest-looking bird we could find, even if the ornery in question was, in reality, little more than the avian equivalent of a tricked-out SUV on giant tires, compensating for something else that’s missing. Maybe, as a toddling nation that didn’t want a king, yet not yet completely certain it could live without one, we needed the eagle like a child needs a favorite teddy or security blanket for protection. But Washington repeatedly turned down the opportunity to go divine, for the last time in 1792, so what, in his name, is the first country born of & defined by its rejection of monarchy still doing with a national bird so closely affiliated with it?
One thing within our imagined dialog among the founders that’s definitely not fictional: a lot of countries use eagles as national symbols; we’ve compiled them in the image below:
Note all the gold and crowns involved. Note, too, how every country is straining to make their eagle original, sometimes to bizarre or comical effect. Many appear to be violently ill, especially Poland’s (1), or dragooned into the gig against their will, e.g. Moldova’s (2). Yemen’s dove-like representation (3) is a bit arch (or simply tragic) under the present circumstances; on a lighter note, it appears someone forgot to tell (4) Iraq’s it’s not the 70’s anymore; the Virgin Islands’ bird (5) is clearly spending too much time on the beach (and not enough in the water); and the Philippines’ (6) looks like a school mascot, gratuitously so, as we’ll see momentarily. We’re not sure what Lichtenstein (7) is trying to say, but we’re fairly certain American Samoa’s (8) is looking to kill someone who made a big mess it has to clean up.
On the other hand, we do like Kazakhstan’s (9), Kurdistan’s (10), and the Nigerian Airlines’ abstract version of theirs (11). We like the Snoopy vibe of Jordan’s (12), the “be cool” ‘tude of Zambia’s (13), we’d like ‘next’ on whatever court or field Kurdistan Eagle #2 (14) is playing on, and we delight in Austria’s capapie bipolar subversion of authoritarianism in all forms (15)2. All in all, though, we share the reaction of the two white horses in the corners that, for some smh reason, adorn the coat of arms of an African nation which shall remain nameless. All in all, these nationales‘ collective purpose might be better served by sticking closer to the actual visages of the birds they claim as their representatives, as can be seen, a bit breathtakingly, below:
All, that is, except Sri Lanka (lower left), which might be better off sticking to abstraction and the imagination of its viewers, lest would-be invaders conclude the country sees itself as an overgrown parrot. As for the rest, truth be told, even these images don’t do justice to some of the avians involved–like the Harpy and Monkey-Eating Eagles of Panama and the Phillipines, respectively, shown at right, the Lord God Birds of two continents, hailing from countries that perhaps really do need birds like these for protection (from us, for example). Or Kurdistan’s Imperial Eagle below them, which has an unusually clear-eyed sense of the skill set required of a national bird representing a people who’ve experienced nothing but injustice for centuries.
But we aren’t Sri Lanka, Panama, the Phillipines, or Kurdistan (and if we were, we picked the wrong eagle–Mexico got the one we should have taken, though many Mexicans don’t think even the one we left for them is really tough enough either). Not for nothing, we aren’t Albania, Armenia, Indonesia, or Zimbabwe either. Frankly, in fact, the sheer number of other countries using eagles as their symbol should offend the sensibility of every American exceptionalist, no matter how much kinship they may feel with our bird’s phony bravado. It’s not as if we can claim to be flattered, either–the first country to adopt the eagle as its mascot was the Roman Empire, more than a millennium before we were a twinkle in any western eye. Moreover, as you can tell from the styling of many of the seals above, plenty of European nations were claiming and deploying iggles as their own long before we were.
Which brings us back to the more fundamental problem, hinted at by adjectives, confirmed by actions. The chart below shows every country other than the U.S. that’s adopted an eagle as its symbol, alongside its ranking on the Democracy Index. Germany gets ranked twice, once for the modern country where the bird is basically an afterthought, and once for the Nazi era when it was customized, fetishized, and ubiquitous. It doesn’t take much scrolling to come to the conclusion that this is not company the world’s “beacon of democracy” should be keeping. And that’s without including the Roman Empire or any other ancient authoritarian oppressors who might have adopted one aquila or another, either officially or unofficially (like the Mongols in general, and Genghis Khan in particular)
But there’s more; in fact, we’re just getting started. It’s telling, we think, for example, that left to their own democratic devices, no state has chosen a raptor or owl, a bird of prey of any kind, as its state bird. While some states, as we say in sports, just plain don’t like each other, there’s no state bird in any state that’s capable of killing any other, except under extreme circumstances, which are also the only circumstances under which they’d even want to.3 Blue jays, crows, and ravens, all routine nest robbers, are no one’s state bird, nor are the ectoparasites, like cowbirds, that lay their eggs in others’ nests. Consciously or not, our nation’s statehouses are all following a fundamental principle of our system of government, federalism, that decentralizes government power, gives most of it to the states, and makes each independent of the others. The resulting marketplace of ideas in policymaking has been a key ingredient in our special sauce for nearly 250 years. As a governing principle, federalism has long been especially important to those who would be most likely to defend the eagle from our attacks. So our next rhetorical question goes ‘specially to thems such that’s reading: is it really in keeping with the American way, with federalism, with states rights as you see them, to have, as our national emblem, an opportunistic apex predator fully capable of killing and eating every state bird at any stage of its life, and won’t hesitate to do so if the opportunity arises? Such may have symbolically been Hamilton’s thuggish fantasy for our federal government, but it certainly wasn’t your heroes’: Jefferson, Madison, Andrew Jackson, et al. Take a look at the little picture to the right: what do you see? A perfect fit for your fondest dystopian fantasies, perhaps? Can’t you hear the chuff, chuff, chuff of the choppers on their way?
On our Great Seal, the eagle depicted is decidedly warlike; he holds olive branches, but in a tight fist, and in depictions where he’s shown looking at them, he looks affronted to find them there. Given our history–we’ve sent our military into 192 of the 195 countries in the world today, and gone to war against at least 152 of the Native tribes (arguably against all 579) we found here when we arrived–we can’t say this is inappropriate on its face, but national symbols are always aspirational–that our democracy has been far from perfect, for example, doesn’t obligate us to share a national bird with Hitler or the Roman Empire. Moreover, we’re also the country that invented the anti-war protest,4 and continue to be the most prolific masters of the form. Our nation’s greatest contribution to the practice of resistance and dissent, Civil Disobedience, was not only revolutionary in its insistence on non-violence, but specifically inspired by Thoreau’s desire to oppose war5 without resorting to the very thing he was opposing. Neither our aspirations nor our actual history in this regard are accurately represented by an eagle of any kind; rather, its antithesis.
National symbols impact what we believe about ourselves, what we want to be, at any age, but especially when we’re young, and in these existential times, there’s never been a more important generation than the one growing up in our midst today. Even as all education stakeholders have come to realize the importance of civics education (e.g. three–quarters of educators and two–thirds of parents believe there should be a greater emphasis on civics education in their schools, and 75–80 percent of both say they’d be willing to spend more time with their children/students to ensure this), and even as the savviest recognize that for us to compete with the authoritarians––who start inculcating belief in their system with babes still captive in the cradle––this education must begin as early as possible, the subject is considered so politically fraught and challenging that for many children, the first and only civics lesson they receive until they reach the middle grades, at least the only one with any visceral impact, is the identity of our national bird. I know that was true for me. I remember spending a significant portion of first grade in the conservative state of Indiana coloring inside the lines and copying down paragraphs of information about the most familiar birds in our country, with a special emphasis on the Bald Eagle as our national pride and joy. Years before I knew anything about democracy, I knew our bird was the king of birds, and so we were the king of nations.
But my best friend’s favorite avian (thanks, no doubt, to his decidedly un-American liberal parents) was the California Condor, which, he was happy to point out, weighed more, stood taller, lived longer, and had a greater wingspan. In response, I drew picture after picture of Bald Eagles taking on and destroying condors, of which, by then, there were fewer than 50 remaining in the wild. When my eagles got through with them, there would be none, I thought grimly. Because of the inevitable bird-on-bird rivalries that arise if your bird is an eagle (if it hadn’t been condors, it would have been something else–boys will be boys), I read everything I could about how powerful eagles were, drank in the roll call of every other bird, reptile, fish, or mammal they had vanquished, stooping and barrel-rolling in my yard to celebrate America as bad***, gleefully adopting the vision of our country that delights our enemies and chagrins our friends, fueling the “ugly American” stereotype while undermining our men and women in service, a.k.a. the real bad***es who actually walk that walk, and do so with respect, not the blowhard superciliousness of barkaloungers, armchair generals, or Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
Worse, I was inevitably exposed to the profound cognitive dissonance created by the fissure between what we were taught about the eagle as the ideal representative of our nation, the greatest on earth, and its well-known relationship with what Franklin called the “fishing hawk,” which we know today as the Osprey. All the books and articles I read were quite frank about the eagles’ propensity for robbing Ospreys of their prey, and as I think back on it, I find myself smh in wonder at what seems to have been a lethal assault–at best oblivious, at worst insidious–on the moral bearings of young minds like mine. There are, after all, only two ways children can resolve the obvious conflict, neither of them good: they can conclude that what the eagle does is not really thievery, merely further proof that it–and we–are The Greatest by virtue of our dominion over others, that might makes right (with an unhealthy scoop of bully–is there any other kind–thrown in). Or, as they grow older and come to realize everyone has known about this raptor’s unsavoriness for literally centuries–and apparently nobody cares–they can instead, out of self-defense, resort to disillusion, cynicism, mockery, and the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, aka the official faith of the powerful.
Having the chrome dome as national bird was fortuitous during the DDT crisis decades ago, and therefore for modern environmentalism in general, but that movement, like the bird itself, has proven overly shallow (hey, nos culpa too), and as a result, we have climate change, plus a veritable deluge of other unnatural disasters, to keep us ecologically wide awake for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile Bald Eagle numbers have rebounded to the point where their pest-ilential true nature has only become increasingly apparent, whether they’re belying their alleged dignity (and therefore ours) by dumpster-diving outside fast food restaurants, or culling, not the old and weak, but the young and helpless, devastating colonies of already rapidly declining seabirds like puffins and murres. When an eagle was recently found stabbed through the heart by a Common Loon in defense of its young, it was heartening to see how many of our fellow Americans spoke out in defense of the loon, but is it not problematic when sizable proportions of a country’s citizens justifiably cheer on the killing of its national bird?
In fact, when one considers the totality of:
- Bald Eagles’ scavenging and thieving ways–letting others do the work while they enjoy the spoils
- Their propensity to gluttonously prey on the small and defenseless, robbing the future for the present
- The support they provide by example for militaristic violence, in which the many inevitably perish to serve the interests of the few
- More generally, the way they front boldness and bravery by appearance while representing the opposite in life, supported by entourages of image makers (for example, did you grow up thinking a Bald Eagle sounds like this? Actually, that’s the Debbie Reynolds of raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk; this is what a Bald Eagle really sounds like, sans tailors, hair plugs, makeup, or airbrushing–that’s right, like a gull with laryngitis)
- The way their mien most closely resembles that of the worst and most antediluvian (a four letter word in America) bosses we’ve ever had–or their perpetually outraged yet well-heeled apologists in the media. Put another way, when you picture a Bald Eagle as a human being, what do you see? That’s right, Jim Henson–just another crabby old white guy.
Even when you consider, perhaps even especially if you consider, what’s most magnificent about them, the way they soar effortlessly above the rest of creation, looking down on the rest of us from the private jets of their bodies with their high tech eyes, it becomes clear who and what they really represent–not we, the people, nor the promise of our country, but the 0.1% and the disease of runaway late capitalism.
To be clear, just as we love eagles, really (we love Starlings & House Sparrows too, and if there was a National Rascal, and in this country there should be, the Bald Eagle would be on our shortlist, with extreme affection)–we don’t mean to include everyone in the top 0.1% in said indictment; we personally know a number of people in that rarefied bracket whom we prefer to call 1/100s because they’ve never forgotten where they came from and what the rest of us did to help them get to where they are. We mean what we call the darksters (or even darkies, in hopes the benighted white working class might finally see who their real adversaries are), the dark money elite whose loyalties are only to themselves or, to put it more charitably, who haven’t yet understood the scientific and mathematical certainty that the only way their lives can possibly have meaning is by helping the poor and protecting the environment.5
Eagles don’t understand this either. Unlike the bird we’ll be be proposing to replace the incumbent, you’ll never see an eagle whose comrade has fallen try to protect or rescue it or, at a minimum, deny its killer any further satisfaction, like a real American soldier; in fact, you’ll likely never see a bald one act in the interest of the common good in any way, though full transparency requires us to share the one instance we’re aware of when one did:
It can be argued that this particular Baldhead, who goes, appropriately, by the name of “Uncle Sam,” deserves at least the title of National Bird Emeritus, but if we really want to show the world the last four years were an abominable aberration– no mean feat with the POT (Party of Trump) unrolling an extra long red tie between Mar-A-Lago and DC a little more each day, on behalf of a man who never saw an agreement (or anything else) he wouldn’t break–is there any more convincing way to do it than a change in our fundamental symbology to reflect our real values and real character. Policies are just pieces of paper–and not just to Donald Trump; symbols are a lot more than that, both in politics and life. Both “sides” of our current political donnybrook know this; it’s a macro version of the “rebranding” the donor class does all the time, and literally every company successful enough to be part of said all-powerful constituency today has had to do it at least once since 1782.
But perhaps the eagle, to paraphrase Churchill, is the worst of all birds except all the others? It would certainly seem so when one considers the alternative put forward by Franklin, the Wild Turkey, whose name alone would seem to disqualify it. And in fact, Franklin’s advocacy on its behalf, in a prescient nod to modern politics, was far more anti-eagle than pro-turkey, centered on the faint pleasure he experienced in finding the eagle so poorly represented on the mock-up it looked more like a turkey than the despis-ed raptor:
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, 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.”
“A little vain and silly” sounds euphemistic to modern ears, exposed as we’ve been to at least a hundred years of anti-turkey propaganda, likely not so much in rebuttal to Franklin, but rather as morally comforting digestif, given what most of the world sees as our inexplicable, insatiable desire to consume them. Suspiciously, much of the most compelling messaging in this regard originates on turkey farms, swallowed whole with the aid of mouth-watering layers of salt and boatloads of gravy, despite the obvious conflicts of interest presented by those involved. Turkeys are stupid, they shout more than whisper, too stupid to live, and indeed their Exhibit A–that in a downpour the birds will stand, mouths agape, stretched wide in supplication to the heavens, taking in/on water until they explode–is pretty compelling, if a little difficult to credit (when our own mouths are not similarly agape, stuffed with breasts and thighs), since there have been downpours for billions of years and yet turkeys abide.
The truth, as is so often the case, is exactly the opposite of what we’ve led ourselves to believe. They’re actually highly intelligent, capable of committing to memory the geographical and ecological details of up to a thousand acres, extremely curious, always investigating new sights and sounds, and playful–toss an apple into a midst of a group of turkeys and they’re liable to use it to start up a game of football. Nearly driven to extinction in the wild by the 1940s as a result of unrestricted hunting and habitat destruction, they’ve since rebounded to a population of 3.5 million, 35x the number of Bald Eagles, against much more entrenched threats than DDT.
Like humans in general, and Americans in particular, they’re highly social, both with each other and with us; they can recognize each other by sound, individual people by sight, and love to be stroked, petted, and cuddled. They enjoy our music and will cluck along to the melodies. Unlike the typical Bald Eagle, who prefers to cut and run like a typical one percent bully, they will fight to defend each other in the wild and mourn the death of members of their flocks. And here’s something the turkey farms would really prefer you not hear: in captivity, they’ve been known to go into cardiac arrest in droves (in downpours, no doubt) at the sight of their fellow birds being carried off to what they correctly anticipate to be certain and painful demise.
Not surprisingly, some of the most compelling accounts of who and what turkeys really are come from those who’ve hunted them. As they were being slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands in the late 19th century, a Dr. J. M. Wheaton shared this observation:
“As if aware that their safety depended on their preserving an incognito when observed, they effect the unconcern of their tame relatives so long as a threatened danger is passive or unavoidable. I have known them to remain quietly perched upon a fence while a team passed by; and one occasion knew a couple of hunters to be so confused by the actions of a flock of five, which deliberately walked in front of them, mounted a fence, and disappeared leisurely over a low hill before they were able to decide them to be wild. No sooner were they out of sight, than they took to their legs and then to their wings, soon placing a wide valley between them and their now amazed and mortified pursuers.”
More recently, an outdoorsman named Joe Hutto found himself compelled to give up hunting them altogether, thanks to the guileless interventions of an individual he nicknamed ‘Turkey Boy’:
“Each time I joined him, he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears. He would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”
If you just lost your appetite, there’s hope you can invest in. And in the meantime, having the turkey as our national bird would enable us to turn Thanksgiving into a new, albeit unholy, form of communion. Yet we find ourselves drawing on one of the few flabbergasting, or just plain flabby, things F. Scott Fitzgerald ever said: “There are no second acts in American lives.” That would be news to the nation of immigrants and the most dynamic economy in the history of the world. Apparently, Fitzgerald himself had second thoughts, but there’s one quadrennial measure in the great American symphony where his aphorism does appear to apply, the precarious reach for the highest brass ring in American life, whether by man7 or bird. Edmund Muskie didn’t cry, Mitt Romney never said he liked to fire people, George H.W. Bush was never baffled by the existence of scanners, and what appears to be turkeys’ fatalistic determination to take in rainwater until they expire is merely an illusion created by a genetic condition we bred into them, unnatch. No matter: Muskie was too weak, Romney too cold-hearted, Bush too out of touch, and turkeys too stupid to reach the pinnacle–we don’t want them reminding us in our living rooms for four years, let alone for all time.
While we often serve as the moral conscience of the world (to the extent there is one), this role is invariably, if not necessarily, accompanied by a propensity for black and white thinking, which, ironically, is why, for all our obsession with/pride in doing the right thing, we so often end up choosing evils (lesser or not) we don’t have to. Democrat or Republican, with us or against us, eagle or turkey? Well, if you put it that way, maybe we’d better stick with the eagle, the devil we know; at least we know it will never stumble down a flight of stairs, do battle with a killer rabbit, throw up at a state dinner, pass out while jogging or stepping into a car, wear an ill-suited hat, scream like a maniac, once, or anything else we find far more embarrassing than the rest of the world, even if what it does routinely, and what it is, represent nothing about who we are and what we believe in.
True Red, White, And Blue
Conservatives like to talk up running the government more like a business. These days they’d also rather drink stagnant bird bath water than compromise, which is, indeed, a very business-like way to look at the world, but the black and white thinking behind it is not: great businesses don’t compromise, they synthesize. And when we pull up & put together all the qualities we think our national bird should have, what bursts into the sky like the Fourth of July is neither eagle nor turkey: it’s the American Robin, American shot through in both name and deeds.
How so, you ask? Or less politely, huh?? Let’s start with another call and response. When you think of Robins, what are the first adjectives that come to mind? Plucky? Cheerful? Some of the others most commonly used include: honest, bold, familiar, inquisitive (most people in other countries find our questions and presumption of familiarity downright impertinent), hungry (on multiple levels), optimistic, persistent, saucy, cheeky, jolly, perky, simple, true, younger, audacious, pert, gallant, solicitous, unabashed, stout–hearted, sturdy, faithful, steadfast, ordinary (and proud of it), jubilant, expectant, wakeful, restless, irrepressible, adventurous, busy, venturesome, and small d democratic. All of which mash up into a portrait akin to seeing usselves in a car window or bumper, right? If your reaction to any of these descriptors is “that’s not the America or Americans I know,” let us save you the trouble of further such objections as you forge on by giving you, up front, the response we’d provide in every case: “it was, and can be, must be again.” Even our enemies, if/when they’re being honest, would agree with most.
Moreover, many of the less flattering associations these birds have picked up like worms from the sidewalk–epithets like plump, fat, obese, ragged, rumpled, untidy (in the eyes of most, we’re often inappropriately casual in our appearance and grooming), wanton, loud-voiced, noisy, indiscreet, impudent, angry, truculent, certain, blind, self-important–fit we, the people, a lot better than “majestic,” “imperial,” “royal,” or “regal” do. That so many of these associations are as contradictory as the anti-ideology of American pragmatism–e.g. Robins are seen as both pious and lecherous, paternal and innocent, greedy and poor–is also a fit for the most diverse nation on earth, one that prides itself on “common sense” without the self-awareness of our own complexity.
In the teeming spirit world always in the air and never far below the surface in the world’s wellspring of religious freedom, the Robin’s connections to the essence of America are even more clear, especially as understood by the First Americans long before the spirit of ’76 was so much as a wisp over a single hollow. As a spirit animal, the Robin is said to symbolize “new growth and renewal,” the capacity to “make change with joy,” with the capacity to help you realize your passions, become independent, self-reliant, have prophetic visions, be able to “move forward with grace, tenacity, perseverance, and assertion,” “find contentment in all types of circumstances,” “take pleasure in the simple things in life,” and teach the importance of family and community while reminding us all to hold on to our identities. I’ll pre-emptively admit that, like so much on the Net these days, the sourcing behind these kinds of pronouncements is thin (which is typically American as well), and let’s face it, like astrological forecasts (unless you’re a Pisces), every spirit animal is above average, but as we’ll see, especially when combined with the adjectives above used to describe them, collectively these dimensions of “Robinness” speak uncannily to both the defining qualities of the bird and much of what’s best and distinctive about our country.
For example, America and Americans have long been vaunted as the most productive in the world, and even now, when there are four European countries–Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, and Belgium–that produce more GDP/hour, we put in more hours than any of them. Robins are the first birds to wake in the morning, the last to go to sleep, the first to sing after the passing of a storm. Like factory workers of yesteryear and microserfs today, in urban areas they often pull all-nighters, fooled by light pollution into believing the one candlelight threshold of illumination that’s their alarm for another workday has been reached, again. But don’t cry for them, West Batavia; in many other ways, they more closely resemble the classic American economic archetype admired and envied around the world, the entrepreneur.
America’s long been seen as the best and easiest place to start a new business, and the latest world rankings have us jumping back up to 4th after the nation’s resounding rejection of Trump, trailing only three countries with much smaller economies than our own (Singapore, Indonesia, and Mexico). Few birds, if any, have exploited the fruits of the American dream in more ways and more adeptly than Robins, nesting on–even in–our homes, garages, and any other structure we place in their landscape. Like us, they’re highly opportunistic, omnivorous, and adaptable in every way, the only species that truly thrives in the ecological desert of our highly manicured lawns, and one of the very few in the world known to raise as many as three broods of young in a single nesting season if the conditions are right.
In our work life, if not in our politics (where the intoxicating brew of our ideals and emotions seems to make us unusually susceptible to the Big Con), we rightly pride ourselves on our ability to ruthlessly pick out phonies, and Robins are among the few birds able to routinely distinguish the eggs of the parasitic cowbird from their own, tossing them from their nests. Even the way the bird typically feeds seems classically American entrepreneurial: hopping casually along on the ground, suddenly it sees a flash, hears a whisper of soil, stops, cocks its head, considers (but never too long), drives its bill into the ground with zeal, and pulls something up from the earth, our land of plenty.
But don’t we live in a time when productivity has become a dirty word, as much of a Big Con as any politician? Productivity for the benefit of The Man, perhaps, but what do you want to bet a high percentage of the essential workers, waiters, waitresses, eldercare and childcare, servers of all kinds–a higher percentage than would be the case in any other nation–are getting back to the roots of their family tree, not living large off the extra $700 in unemployment benefits they’ve been getting, but rather starting their own businesses on Etsy, Zazzle, and dozens of other back-to- the-future platforms growing like digital weeds in the long untended garden of capitalism?8
Robins don’t work for the Man. Like Americans did in the days when our social mobility topped the world (instead of trailing every other developed country in the OECD), the days when both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum of adjectives–from ragged to rich–commonly applied to this singular bird were often appended to individual Americans in the course of their lifetimes as well, Robins make, insist on choices. While most birds are either migratory or permanent residents in a location, Robins are facultative migrants, meaning either individually or as a group, they decide whether they’re going to migrate or not, and when. And unless encountering snowfall so heavy it might compel us to head south too (if we could fly, and weren’t hogging the world’s hydrocarbon supplies for ourselves), once they make this decision, they can deploy a variety of strategies to make it stick, making changes to their diet, joining up in flocks, and more. As a result, millions of Robins winter north of Valley Forge every year. Add “hardy” to the list of adjectives above.
Because it represents renewal and new beginnings, spring is the quintessential American season, and Robins are considered its harbinger. Of course, in truth the “first Robin of spring” is usually a bird that’s been there all winter long, quietly biding its time while we complained about the weather from the shelter of our homes, and the moment when it emerges from the shadows onto our lawns merely marks its kinship with what new media legend Steve Case calls “the many ten-year overnight success stories” in the world’s last free market. It’s an analogy made even more apt by the motivations of those involved–most overwintering Robins are males literally seeking what’s known in business as “first mover advantage,” getting the jump on others in claiming territory for the breeding season.
When that bless-ed season arrives, unlike so many species drawn like moths to a particular kind of tree of a specific height and configuration with a water source within x meters (cue Little Boxes, cue Apple 1984), for the Robins your yard is their oyster. Wherever you find their nest, a deliberate choice and decision was involved; they had options, and they liked what you’d done with the place where they built. Is it any wonder there have been pieces written for business principals and activists alike extolling “what we can learn” from this featherball, the literal embodiment of the early bird that got the worm (in part by being uniquely prepared to do so).
We measure productivity in dollars of GDP produced/year, and it’s not hard to see why many, especially the young, find this more than a little soulless, completely untethered from “keeping it real.” Robins haven’t forgotten what the p-word really means and what it’s really about: Robins measure their productivity in offspring, which may not be how everyone would like to define the word, but surely we can all agree it’s a better definition than metric tons of coal, barrels of oil, the vast majority of consumer goods, better than all but a tiny fraction, really, of what’s become included in truly gross national product. Besides, you don’t have to spend much time getting to know the Robins in your neighborhood to realize that like the “childless,” the unpaired often have their own distinctive musical and sonic repertoires, that each is an architect, an artisan, a story waiting to be told, a work of art.
All the above–and more, an overflow which we’ll get to, have made the Robin, like our country, one of the most successful in the world. With a population estimated at 310,000,000 and counting, at a time when we’ve lost nearly 30 percent of all birds in the last fifty years, only the domestic chicken, sub-Saharan Africa’s Red-billed Quelea, and our own Mourning Dove are believed to be more numerous. There’s literally a Robin for nearly every man, woman, and child in America (and for sure for every citizen), a personal companion, inspiration, and muse for each. Meanwhile there are only about 300,000 Bald Eagles, which covers, appropriately, a little less than 0.1% of us, exactly the proportion of our population whose values they represent. Equally appropriately, given whose bird it really is, the only reason there are even that many is massive government intervention on their behalf, the kind of crony capitalism (or in this case environmentalism) their human familiars would hypocritically call socialism or protectionism if it were done on behalf of the rest of us. Since we don’t share that opinion, we couldn’t be more delighted that no expense was spared to bring back ol’ Baldy,9 but still…
Not surprisingly, as shown below, Robins are truly a national bird, found in all the states except Hawaii.10 And Bald Eagles are not. Eagle defenders–we think we know who you are–should especially take note of the overlap between your favorite raptor’s range and the breeding grounds of what you call the bicoastal elite, including said elite’s outposts in what otherwise is soarover country to them, the major metro areas metastasizing (your word) alongside all our major lakes and rivers, as blue politically as the waters they abut.
Whenever a politico of any stripe wants us to do something they know we might have qualms about, you can be sure they’ll call out our children (and those of others’ in the abstract) to do the dirty work of twisting our hearts and minds until we’re headed in their desired direction. “We have to do this for the kids,” they’ll intone with all the solemnity and engagement of a church organ, which, in the intergenerational confusion they know this will create in our souls and ids, sounds like the doppler of an ice cream truck we’re about to miss.
But this time they’d be right. On the merits.
Most Americans have never–and likely will never–see a Bald Eagle (in fact there’s a disturbingly high proportion of us who’ve never seen a cow, about the same proportion who say they have communed with the dead), which means it’s that much less likely11 the average child will see our national bird in their formative years, when the nature and qualities of such a potent symbol are shaping their views of our country at every level. They will experience it only as mediated and manipulated for their consumption by the image & myth makers, mainline it as a gateway unsubstantiate for the kind of full-on propaganda highly capable of causing them to, say, take the word of someone on Facebook without credentials, whom they’ve never met, over a doctor they’ve known by nickname all their lives.
None of us are denying that Bald Eagles are spectacular birds or that we don’t get a thrill up the leg every time we see one, especially an adult. And someone who has never seen one before is liable to be positively awestruck. Is that really what you want, conservatives, for our people, our children to be awestruck by a symbol of the federal government, the deep state as you know it? As you can see in the image at right (of course), nearly all the government agencies you dislike most in the Age of Trump feature eagles prominently in their symbology, and that’s not obligatory–many others, even some you’d most expect to have one (e.g. Fish & Wildlife, Interior, the Park Service, BLM) do not.
What this collection of evil/eagle agencies tends to have in common in earning your enmity is encroachment on what you see as your freedoms.12 So they use the eagle to symbolize they mean business, and will do whatever’s necessary to compel you to comply. Little do they know their weapon of choice is really just a coward and bully that prefers to prey on the small and helpless whenever possible. Of course, that does make the bird the perfect symbol for the agency whose logo Americans are most familiar with, the agency you like least of all. But we digress.
By contrast, everyone has seen a Robin; everyone sees them all the time, they’re always with us. If that makes you wince, even a little, if it makes you feel they aren’t “special” enough for our exceptional tis of thee, well, with due respect, may we suggest that perhaps you’ve only been skimming (even though you clearly just read this), and maybe need to read some more.
You might also want to check your passport to make sure you’re in the right country. Celebrity/superstar culture is a relatively new growth on the body politic, and the pandemic, as it has done in so many other ways, has exposed it to the elements and burned a lot of it away. Wing your way back to founding days, when Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was our ur-text, when we proudly owned the mockery of Yankee Doodle, when the most common adjective used to describe us was “provincial.” We celebrate the common man in this country, we cheer on the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and it took the hand of the worst sidam in our history–the man who’s always turned everything and everyone he’s touched to ****–to shrivel proud populism, hero of our childhood textbooks, down into a four-letter word.
So…too common, too vulgaris? No, the more Robins, the better; growth remains an American cow of the sacred variety everyone has seen.
When we were researching this piece, a running theme in the articles we read was that despite our familiar, even friendly relationship with the Robin, there are many things surprising about it, and much we don’t know. This has dark echoes in our current culture, of course, in, for example, the spree or serial killer who was “always so quiet,” “who kept to himself,” who, it turns out “no one really knew very well.” But ’twas not always so. Time was that Americans’ Robin-like, almost aggressively open, brash, friendly, and garrulous nature (about which we’ll have more to say in a moment) meant we all knew all our neighbors pretty well.
Perhaps the combination of Robins’ ubiquity, kids’ natural curiosity, and national bird status could help get us back to the days when no one stayed a stranger very long, even if, in this case, they hail from another species. Call us glass half full of it, but we believe it’s a virtual statistical certainty that the more time we spend observing, listening, and interacting with another, any Other, the more we we find we have in common,13 the closer we come to fitting together pieces of the puzzle of life, the more we find desperately needed unity instead of division, not the false unity of the lock step or oppression, but, as the late Ed Asner put it, “a milieu… of bolstering each other, of love for each other’s work, of trying to help each other, of trying to get the best out of each other.”
Can a 2.7 oz. bird really help the next generation get there? One of major themes of ornithology in the past decade has been the uncovering of what author Jennifer Ackerman calls “the genius of birds,” their own, that is, not merely defined and limited by human capacities and associated benchmarks. This alone, by showing in some ethereal way we’re not alone in the gordian world war to save the planet from ourselves, could strengthen hope and determination for those we’re leaving this monumental task to. And the more we find we have in common with our fellow designated survivors, sharing both virtues and vices with them, the stronger the bond and, QED, our mutual and collective strength will be; knowledge through observation and listening builds the bridge we must cross to support/value what our differences bring to the fight.
As they view their new national bird with new respect and wider eyes, the otherwise ominously named Generation Z is likely to see an astonishing range of surprisingly familiar behavior, both righteous and retrograde. To take one small example, they’ll undoubtedly observe that mated Robin pairs share parenting duties in ways their own elders likely also aspire to because of the feminist movement that began in these united states. At the same time, they may catch out the male birds in their neighborhood leaving their partners on the nest night after night to flock together in the woods (perhaps they’ll even be the first to hear and report the faint sound of drumming), where they sometimes deliberately get plastered on fermented berries, even after waiting until late afternoon to start imbibing, and occasionally get into sloshed rows and brawls with their otherwise debonair Cedar Waxwing drinking companions. As Helen McDonald’s H Is For Hawk (yet another rule-proving exception) demonstrates in contrast, it takes much fiercer focus in the closest of quarters to find any common ground with a raptor, fundamentally because we and Robins see more eye to eye from our respective branches on the evolutionary tree, making it far easier and more possible to develop a personal relationship and story intertwined with them.
Beyond uncovering surprising similarities and unique quirks–like the way Robins scratch their heads (sorry, no link–give yourself a break, go outside and see), more broadly this most critical of generations will hopefully learn that what makes Robins special is what makes America special, too; how different they can be as individuals and yet–or because of this–how sophisticated and powerful they can be in groups, mirroring the complementarity between individual and community in American life. Arguably best of all, they’ll be able to see everything they’re taught about “their bird” for themselves with their own eyes, not to mention potentially add to our fund of understanding about both Robins and ourselves.
It’s beyond cliché to describe America as a nation of immigrants that QED continues to be transient socioeconomically, ethnically, ideologically, geographically–in every possible way–and that this is how the country has continued to renew itself and remain dynamic for centuries. This is fundamental to who we’ve been and who we want to be, but seemingly lost in the present day, and we could use as many bright eyes as possible to regain it.
Not only do Robins bring 310 million pairs of such eyes to the quest, but many resonances with it as well. Robins are famously migratory; it’s literally in their scientific name, Turdus migratorius, and recognized worldwide; in Germany, for example, it’s known as the Wanderdrossel, the Wandering Thrush, presumably because of the frequency with which it shows up there, thousands of miles from home.
Still, you can be forgiven for wondering why it’s been given these appellations when, unlike many other species of thrush, not all Robins migrate. I’d contend this is exactly why it was, should have been given the name, because unlike its fellow turdidae, it migrates by choice. And this it has in common with every immigrant to our country, even those fleeing political persecution–even in such dire circumstances, only some undertake the fraught journey to come here, a much larger number do not.14 And having lived in a country most Americans would think everyone would want to leave (they don’t), it’s impossible to say, even of those who pay for staying in their homeland with their lives, that they were/are wrong–after all, if a dictator took over our country, would you leave, or would you stay and fight? Frankly, we’d need people making that decision both ways to take it back. In any case, home is home, for all of us deeply felt and appreciated, the soil of sustenance. People just differ in how they define it, and America just happens to be a nation self-selected by an idea, a very aspirational idea of home. Robins clearly have those kinds of ideas, too.
Our Robin is not a real Robin, my father, an immigrant himself, reminded me many times when I was a boy. Compared to its European counterpart, our Robin is big, bold, brassy, awkward, ungainly, fat, and loud. Listen to what happens when a singing Robin Redbreast (as the European is known in England because the Brits had no word for orange until they began importing citrus) is joined by its cousin from across the pond. And as you listen, note that AMRO’s15 singing, while cheerful, can go on endlessly and carelessly without any regard to whether anyone is listening. You can see why my paterfamilias found them annoying–these are all qualities in sight and sound that Europeans and others find enervating about Americans themselves. Don’t believe us? Listen to this duet between a Robin and a classic/typical American monologue (this is how you probably sound to a lot of people around the world, folks); I call it a duet because, as you’ll hear, the Robin and the American (who’s talking the ear off a suffering cabbie in the opening scene of Richard Linklater’s Slacker) are far more in sync vocally and rhythmically than the dueling Robins are, wherein the European Redbreast appears to be playing the role of the cabbie.
Truth be told, our Robin’s closest relative in Europe is not the Redbreast; it’s black, the European Blackbird, which seems righteously right, whether some in our country like it or not, especially when you consider that the most abundant thrush in Africa itself is our Robin’s closest kin there. As you can see at right, together they could be fraternal triplets, something even more apparent when you see and hear them in the field. No less than the Beatles certainly saw the connection; as Paul McCartney has related many times, their iconic song Blackbird was inspired by the civil rights movement in our country, and the role of black girls in particular (“bird” being common slang for “girl” in England at the time) were playing, in Little Rock, in Topeka, in Birmingham, in Robert E Lee’s Virginia, and in the Children’s Crusade writ large, which continues to this day. You can listen to the song–to which we’ve appended a Robin and an African Thrush so you can hear how harmoniously similar, like the Beatles themselves, the three are–here.
For immigrants all over the world, the Robin has been a symbol and manifestation of first, homesickness, then connection between their old life and new. Dozens of birds all over the world, most not closely related to the original Robin at all, have been dubbed “robins” by immigrants because of the color of their breast or something else in their look or behavior that reminded them of the bird that, like ours, they all knew from their yards and gardens. In some cases, the search for that connection, so far away, seems to have been particularly desperate, and it’s difficult to see what the bird in question had in common with a robin beyond feathers, a beak, two wings, and a tail. A friendly attitude, perhaps, a reliable presence, a joyful song.
My father had a connection experience like this in a piecewise polynomial kind of way. As my interest in birds grew, he expressed his disappointment in our Robin less and talked more about the bird he really missed, a bird that sang endlessly, most notably at night and as soon as the rain stopped at the end of a storm. We tried repeatedly to suss out what it had been, but while he likely had Internet access, this was well before the launch of the World Wide Web, and he’d never seen it, only heard it sing.
He was always extremely busy, so one year the only thing I asked for for my birthday was that he join me for a series of birding outings I had planned out. On one of these outings, he suddenly stopped, froze as completely as a bittern, and the blood seemed to drain from his face. I looked at him, puzzled, and probably a little alarmed.
“I hear it” he whispered sharply.
“The bird!” he said excitedly. “The drossel, the bird I’ve told you about so many times.”
I listened and heard nothing. Or rather I heard only one bird singing, and it was so familiar, I blotted it out of my mind.
“Is it still singing?” I ventured.
“Yes!” he practically hissed, looking at me with annoyance; after all, I was the one who was supposed to know what everything was.
I listened and listened, still nothing, glancing at him to confirm he was still rapt. Now it was my turn to get annoyed. Finally, I turned to him and said, a little crossly: “What are you hearing?” Then, for some reason, added the qualifier: “besides the Robin.”
He said nothing but after a long pause, I could see he was coming to what seemed like multiple revelations.
“That’s a Robin? he asked quietly.
“I had no idea they sounded like that,” he said softly, without thinking to ask me why I hadn’t informed him of this years ago.
Then he looked up in the direction the bird was singing from and gave it, because he’s a German immigrant, the slightest head nod of acknowledgment, then looked at me and gave me a more vigorous one. And then I noticed something he probably doesn’t remember or would deny; he suddenly seemed more relaxed, more at peace. By that time he had been living in the U.S. for more than a dozen years, his work, his mathematics was already embedded in hundreds of objects, real and virtual, all around us every day, but in that moment, as if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds on his face alone, he seemed at home.
One consequence of there being so many birds around the world called robins is that it becomes necessary sometimes to identify them by where they’re from, which, any immigrant will tell you, is the question they get asked far more than any other. Hence, the American (as in “I’m American”) Robin, as opposed to the Bald Eagle or the Wild Turkey. Americans don’t care enough about Robins to ask them what they’re doing here, but we’re aiming to change that, albeit with a complete change in tone with which the question is asked, i.e. more in wonder than in accusation. Because as our last Republican president, George W Bush, once said, “every immigrant makes our nation more, not less, American.”
And that makes our Robin more American than our eagle, too. Harking back to my days as an eagle fanboy (with an emphasis on boy), even at the zenith of my enthusiasm for them, there was something that seemed awry about the Bald Eagle, something that really bothered me about the bird, namely its lack of color–just two colors, and two of the least compelling at that, especially to a child: dark brown and white, almost black & white; at a time, no less, when everyone was buying color TVs. It particularly bothered me that unlike a condor, there was no red on an eagle, my favorite color. Meaning more cognitive dissonance: how could this bird represent me if it wasn’t red anywhere? Which I resolved by imagining there was, had to be, a special race of Bald Eagles with a ring of red feathers around its neck; henceforth, whenever I drew one, the final flourish was to vigorously color in that bright red ring–I even added it to the Bald Eagle in my father’s field guide. Unexposed as I was to subsequent decades of real and simulated televised violence, it never occurred to me that every time I drew my favorite bird, it looked like it had had its throat slit from ear to ear.
I’m theoretically all grown up now, and my favorite color is probably some kind of blue-green, like the dominant color of this site. But it still bothers me, in some ways a lot more in fact, that there’s not so much as a spot of red (or any other color) on a Bald Eagle unless it’s a drop of blood from yet another baby Puffin or other nestling it’s just killed or a fish it’s probably stolen from another bird. America has been the most diverse country in the world for literally centuries–our diversity has been another key ingredient in our special sauce, as study after study, not to mention our school systems and even Mother Nature, confirm. Moreover, it’s been further diversifying, explosively, since I was a child, and unlike the putative good old days, people from all ethnicities are sharing their cultures with each other, to the benefit of all, not just dumping them into a melting pot where, once melted and mixed, they might, indeed, end up all dark brown.
So to determine which bird is more visually representative of both the America of history and the America of today, we took a number of photos of Robins and Bald Eagles and endeavored, sometimes pixel by pixel, to extract every color you can find on each. The results are below:
Whether you’re a multiculturalist of the left, admiring the psychedelic rainbow the Robin brings to the picnic table, or a super-patriot on the right (only one of these birds sports red, white, and blue, folks), the Robin wins claws down flying away. Unless of course, you’re a white supremacist, in which case you might like the idea that the head, the brain of the country, is all white, and believe everyone else’s independence, identity, or worse should be melted and pureed into dark brown soylent sludge for your benefit. You’re also yet another rule-proving exception, because not only is even the possibility of anything like said interpretation so bad optically your bird’s eyes just exploded, you’re not a Real American or really an American or an American at all, since America is an idea you don’t believe in–so your opinion is irrelevant until you change it.
In Conclusion: Total Recall
Full disclosure. Early one morning earlier this year, I was driving at least 10 miles over the speed limit down a narrow country road in a hurry to get somewhere when a bird flushed up suddenly from the brush by the right side of the road and flashed in front of my right front tire. Fortunately, there was no telltale tiny thud, and when I looked in the rear view mirror I saw a Robin standing in the road where I’d just passed, so I continued along my way.
An hour or so later I came back on the same road, this time a lot more slowly, having realized, as a result of my close call, that birds are undoubtedly smart enough to develop a sense of timing with regard to predators like cars, and that to a bird, a car going 10-20 MPH over the speed limit is like dealing with a falcon that’s unexpectedly acquired a warp drive. Curiously, the Robin, a male, was still there; in fact, he jumped out into the road flicking his wings and tail in agitation. But this time I could see something else, his mate lying dead in the road at his feet. I pulled over and got out.
There’s a lot of research showing birds can recognize individual human faces–even some insects like honeybees can apparently do this–so there’s no reason to believe they don’t recognize individual cars, too. More than an hour’s worth of other suspects had since accumulated, and the only other time in my life I had ever hit a bird, a Horned Lark, a much smaller avian whose tinkling, spiraling song sounds like a little prayer of gratitude to heaven sung by an angel–struck, ironically, when I was momentarily distracted by my inability to come up with a word to describe my basic problem with the New Atheists–I definitely heard a sound as it hit the grille of my car. Not so that morning. So it would have been easy to take on the cloak of a Samaritan, as I now know I was doing. Except that the Robin remaining was quite clear about who was responsible.
When, in response, I instinctively took a couple of steps towards his mate–thinking I was going to do what? Crush her with CPR? Inflict the sight of human burial rituals on my accuser, who had clearly not accepted that a death so inexplicable and unjust could be real?–he hopped aggressively forward and became even more vociferous. I have long believed the only rational, even legitimate, reason for self-hatred is when you’ve done harm to others by your actions or inactions. As I stood there being cursed out by this 2.7 oz. spark of life, I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for even the most callous of killers in those inevitable dark hours when, as social animals, even they can’t avoid thinking of everyone harmed beyond their victims as they peer into the depths of helplessness hell. I looked into the rage and grief and betrayal in his eyes,16 trying to communicate my own remorse, and all I could think of was that famous passage from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac,
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view…”
I can now think of something I might have done if I weren’t such a tinpot Lord Jim; I could have gone to the house next to the road, knocked on the door, explained what happened. Together we could have found the nest–the occupants almost certainly already knew where it was, called a wildlife rehabilitator to take care of the chicks…
Instead I just left. Instead I can only hope the pair was between broods, or that my arrogance extends to an inability to consider that the aggrieved and grieving father might possess the ingenuity and indefatigability to raise them on his own. I will probably never forgive myself for killing his mate; to me, that’s the only paltry and pathetic thing I can do to generate the slightest motion in the scales of justice; the worst would be to forget.
Oddly enough, later that same day, I saw several Bald Eagles, with an emphasis on odd. As you can see, they were practically lying down on a grassy spit, with a group of vultures, natch, looking for all the world like they were loafing on the beach while gulls, terns, and even crows were exuberantly surfing the same incoming storm winds that had apparently grounded them. I took the picture when I was at least a hundred times further away from them than I’d been to the furious Robin earlier that day (there’s a lot of zoom involved) because the eagles, in particular, were showing signs they might fly away if I approached any more closely. Given how protected they’ve been for multiple eagle generations, I doubt this was the result of traumatic experience with humans.
Which leads me to swing open the doors and let in the going rogue elephant that’s been pounding on them. This pachyderm, consisting of roughly 40% of our population for whom everything we’ve said since the magic word “robin” has bounced off one ear or the other, is literally looking down on our puny bird and saying; no way; no way that tiny weakling can represent my country, the most powerful in the world, forgetting that America’s power, like the Robin’s, is the sum of all of us, and nobody’s proposing that the B-2 bomber become the national bird. Less politely, the bellicose tusker is trumpeting: “My bird can kick your bird’s a**.”
To which we reply, in memory of Carl Reiner: “Sure about that?” Because the most classic, trope-drenched American storyline, our most sacred mythological template, ever since it was forged in the origins of the nation itself, is probably this: a bunch of “little guys,” often misfits, often with limited capabilities individually, always with limited powers, band together to take down something or someone big, bad, and seemingly invincible, whether a Mad King and his undefeated army, or aliens who inadvertently create a new worldwide holiday; it’s shot through American legend, cinema, journalism, letters, et al, and it’s probably playing at a backyard near you on an unlimited run.
Like America, Robins are sentinels for their world, perpetually, even relentlessly on the watch for danger not only to themselves, but to other Robins and even other bird species. While it’s easy–to the point of meaningless tautology–for cynics, libertarians, and evolutionary biologists to find ulterior motives in every action, there is, at minimum, an element of trust and good faith, if not pure selflessness, in the actions of a sentinel, whether avian or American, in that by sounding the alarm or otherwise interceding, we and they are drawing the attention of the threat to ourselves–and in the times we live in, trust and good faith are the new altruism.
It’s not hard to find a channel where the show is playing; just listen for sounds like these and be aware, to borrow an old poker proverb, that if you can’t figure out what the danger is in 30 seconds, the danger is you. And that’s not necessarily something to be taken lightly. Like us Muricans, it’s not hard to chat up and get friendly with a robin–they’re bold, intelligent, and curious. But also like us, they have unwritten rules and invisible, often hair-triggered lines that can vary from bird to bird more than they’re culturally determined. And when you’re on the wrong side of them, well, watch what happens to this Barred Owl, a bird that, itself, has no compunction about attacking human beings that violate its territory or just disrespect it. It’s even been implicated in an infamous murder, but apparently Robins, the hoi polloi of birds, can only afford basic cable, or, like typical Americans, they just don’t care:
Does the name kamikaze ring a bell? And here’s a Robin who’s really one of us: after tolerating what many of us would consider pretty egregious violations of personal space, you can almost see him saying “turn off the damn camera” just before he brings the vid to a close (click to watch):
Here, for comparison, is the incumbent, being approached by a Raven less than a third its size. The eagle has food. The raven is thinking that food should be his (RIP Michael). What happens next?
Are we engaging in a little cherry-picking here, eaglets? Not unless you can find a video of a Robin fleeing the bad intentions of a sparrow that wants what’s his, or can spin us into believing the raven created this strategy out of whole cloth on the fly,17 or that this eagle is just “showing us a side of him we rarely get to see” (by cutting and running?); his heretofore unseen generosity, perhaps, or a twinge of conscience over the provenance of his meals. We understand and sympathize with your problem: when perpetually drunk on machismo, it’s all too easy to make bromantic mistakes.
In politics, you never close your argument in a debate on your opponent’s turf; you rise above. The fact that Robins are tougher than eagles is yet another sterling reason to switch horses in the muddy stream and rapids of 2021, but not because Robins can “kick eagles’ a**,” rather because, like our country, they redefine what toughness means. The reason you won’t find a TMZ of our bird being abused by a smaller foe is because Robins are widely respected members of any and every backyard community, each a heightened microcosm of America, with a wide range of not just diverse ethnicities, but diverse species living largely in harmony, sharing one overlapping territory, banding together for mutual protection and to find sustenance when times are tough.
Within these communities, Robins are not only leaders when leading is needed, but connective tissue, literally bringing others under their wings, welcoming immigrants to their company and society like more Americans than ever—the vast majority, in fact–do today. In Northeast Canada, for example, every year vagrant European thrushes like Fieldfares and Redwings find their way and fall in with Robin flocks roving the countryside in search of food. In any part of the country, really, big flocks of Robins always cause birders’ heartbeats to jump a little, never knowing what otherwise lost souls, far, far from home, may have found comfort and gotten back on their feet within their friendly confines. We’d like to think they find Robins’ cheerful, informal, extroverted nature, their seeming compunction to leave no silence awkwardly unfilled, as congenial and simpatico as people from around the world find the typical American in America after getting pulled out onto the floor to join our dance.
I can tell you from having lived overseas that this inclination and capacity is what really amazes the rest of the world about America. It’s not the magnitude of our celebrities– every country has these–or the sophistication of our technology; it’s the forces akin to those powering the stars above, that seem, like Sedonan energy vortices, to be ingrained in us through the terroir, making everything about or created by America matter. In a world that seems perpetually crippled by real tribalism so foreign to us we treat the first signs of it like a snowflake in our capital,18 no matter our origins, no matter the task at hand, we have Americaness in common, and when we set our mind on a goal, no one works together better than we do, something we prove every four years in the quadrennial contest between political systems, aka the Olympics.
Authoritarians like to sell themselves to the world as the people who get things done, the places where the trains run on time, not like we messy, indecisive, squabbling democracies. But if there was a real medal count at the Games, meaning one that included every medal awarded, the most recent competition between China and America would look like this:
And the competition between democracies and autocracies, using the Democracy Index to determine which countries go where, would look like this:
Why? Because every four years, democracies in general, and the US in particular, clean the clocks of the dictators in exactly the type of event the authoritarians would excel at if their borg really worked: team sports. And they ought to especially be able to beat us Muricans, because our teams are complete cultural jumbles, as close to a Robin flock or backyard bird community as athletics can get. Instead, just as Robins win the evolutionary games by having the most offspring, each worth an infinite number of medals, both spiritually and practically, we come home flying lowest over the water, our cargo holds loaded down with silver, gold, and bronze.
Making the Robin our official bird is no small deal, setting off rather substantial ripples of hope. Just as they wake us every morning at the crack of candlelight, once you envision Robins actually taking on their official duties in the new robinhood, you experience similar stages of awakening where the rest of our symbology and semiotics are concerned. For example, the eagle is currently featured on three major elements of our currency–the quarter, the half dollar, and the one dollar bill. As you contemplate Robins taking over this role, you come to realize that positioning a Robin in the same way as the eagle will look like we’ve pinned or nailed the bird, spread-eagled (ahem), to the coinage and are torturing it, or worse. So you broaden your mind and start considering different depictions.
For example, on the quarter, we could recognize and celebrate the daring, risk-taking element of our people, for better and worse, as well as incorporate a little of our sense of humor (does any other nation offer as many outlets for laughter and deploy it as much in conversation as we do?) by having a coin that actually has a tails. On the 50 cent piece, how about conflating Robins’ obsession with producing and raising offspring with our own perpetually forward-looking outlook. While others continually look back to their ancestors, and
passionately discuss incidents many centuries past as if they happened last week, we’re lucky if we can remember back that far (last week, that is), and while it may be hard to remember, in our shock at how apres moi, le deluge we’ve become, until the last four years, every politician knew “for the children” was one of the most powerful–if not the most powerful–rhetorical weapons they could wield. For most of our history, we’ve prided ourselves on “every generation having a higher standard of living than the one before.” We need to get back to that America.
As for the dollar bill, an all grey-green Robin looks rather grim and underwhelming, which led us to question why the one dollar bill is the only one without colors, which sensitized us to the slow burn from yet another slap in the face on the part of the uber-wealthy against the rest of us, we, the people, for whom a single still has value, especially when you consider the rationale for adding colors to the others: to prevent counterfeiting. Really, when you think about it, it’s a pretty clear statement, isn’t it? Whether unwitting in its insularity or deliberately intended to subliminally drive home the point every day, multiple times a day, that (a) the ol’ simolean is worthless, (b) so worthless not even the lowest criminal would bother making copies of it, and (c) even if they did, no one would cares, because it’s worthless, meaningless, and (d) therefore you, for whom it still has meaning, so are you. Worthless, nothing but a loser.
The pundits, who are both part of and resolute defenders of the chosen class, will say we can’t afford it, which is complete BT–even the poorest countries have multicolored currency. Then they’ll list off everything that will have to be given up to pay what will likely be a vastly inflated cost vs. what it is/should be, and after listening to them prattle on about how many kids won’t get daycare, or old people glasses and hearing aids, our response should be: who’s this we, kimosabe? Because it ain’t going to be we, the people, whose benefits get “reformed” in the Robin era, not this time, not any more–we’re talking about less than a rounding error in the corporate welfare budget, that’s where the money’s going to come from, for your own good, because if you’ve read this far in this piece, you know symbols matter, and changing this one will trickle up for a change.
Changing currency the Robin way, in turn, expands the mind without artifice. You find yourself wondering, for example, why so many buildings, bridges, roads, and parks are named after politicians. Don’t these people get enough adulation and recognition in life already? Isn’t it rather obscenely incestuous that these “public servants” go around naming things after each other that were all built with our money? Why not name them after scientists, doctors, nurses, firefighters, teachers, or notable plumbers and electricians instead? Or features of the land whose gifts made all we have possible?
And it’s only natural, with robins on your mind and in your ears, to consider that ol’ sore subject, the national anthem, Inevitably it occurs to you that a ditty like Rockin’ Robin would be a much better anthem than the execrable Star Spangled Banner: fast, accessible, upbeat, all-American from the heartland metropolises of Gary and Detroit, not just an old British drinking song that we borrowed the melody from (though in fairness that was the practice of the day; today we call it sampling). Frankly, our current anthem is as inaccessible to sing for most Americans as the Bald Eagle is to see, and the only reason to make our entire anthem about war is if you’re using it to manipulate a people who, since OG Washington’s warning against “foreign entanglements,” have been, unlike their leaders, fairly consistently against it; is it any wonder Banner was only officially adopted when the nation was deep in the grip of the Treatment-Refractory Depression of 1931, perhaps as musical ECT, or just slipped past us while everyone’s eyes were focused in another direction–down and out?
Yes, of course, Robin’s lyrics would need to be changed, just like the SSB’s did when someone found it in a bar–but we also know there’s never been a medium like the Net to capture and distill the wisdom of crowds, this crowd, our crowd in particular. Help us surf and channel the collective energy; send us a lyrical shot across the bow and we’ll send you a Creative Politics tee. If nothing else, Robin could become a bargaining chip to get rid of the SSB once and for all (along with the eagle it rode in on) and replace it with something we can all agree would be better, like a verse for verse interwoven medley between America the Beautiful (all four verses) and Lift Every Voice And Sing (three). After everything our country has done for us, we can stand for another minute or two.19
Sometimes when you write about something you care about, you can get too close to your subject, even start becoming what you’re writing about. Like a Robin, we’ve been going on and on, and now it’s time to stop. In this off-year, recall elections have been in the vogue, and the recent unpleasantness in California notwithstanding, we should never let politicians take away our right to hold them accountable, as they’re stealthily doing across the country. In that spirit, we’re conducting a recall election of our own, to remove the Bald Eagle as national bird and replace it with the American Robin or another bird of your choice (we remind any politicos who might be reading this that two of the three states that have already adopted the Robin as their bird of choice are Michigan and Wisconsin20)
There may be many times the number of words we’ve warbled to characterize what we’re attempting, but “fool’s” and “errand” are not among them. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned in the era of the terrible twins, Trump and climate change, it’s that for better and worse, nothing is impossible, and all of us are going to have to walk the fine line between genius and madness, and between exhilaration and sheer terror as well. Worst case, if we end up in a Parable of the Sower, Snow Crash fragmented dystopia, we can name the Robin the national bird ourselves.
But it really shouldn’t come to that; the questions to be answered should be all but rhetorical: Do we really want our children to grow up believing our nation is best represented by a bird one of our most revered presidents, father of modern conservation, leader of the progressive movement, hero of San Juan Hill, Teddy Roosevelt (R-NY), dismissed as “nothing but a dandified vulture,” a bird whose unsavory qualities are supposed to be covered or wiped away by its great strength and ferocity, a morally dubious proposition at best (do we overlook the crimes of mobsters because they’re vicious and dangerous?), a bird that even so, lacks the fortitude to deliver on even such a low bar set for it?
Or would we rather see our children grow up side-by-side in the trenches with a national bird that will every day remind them and reinforce virtually all that’s best about America, as we ourselves remember when we were most Robin-like, on what should have been the Bald One’s homiest turf, no less, the battlefields and homefront of WWII? We leave you with one more eloquent than ourselves to decide…
Do it for the kids, friends, let’s really do it for the kids this time…
Creative Politics is the first community–based political incubator, synthesizing the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real.
1 Unhappily, and spookily, the proportion of our population that would prefer to be ruled over by a dictator doesn’t seem to have changed much since then, or we’ve come full circle, and should the majority continue to be oppressed by the minority, events of the same nature might follow; in general, it seems at least as likely we could see a second American Revolution as a second Civil War. Back
2 Check out what their eagle is holding in its claws, and what’s happened to the accoutrements around its legs; it’s as if the seal’s designer was an especially avid reader in 1848. Back
3 The California subspecies of Brown Pelican has been observed eating Common Murres (the same kind of bird the eagle is carrying in its claws in the democracy image), as well as egret eggs and nestlings in Mexico, so it’s theoretically possible the Louisiana subspecies might do this too, and we won’t make the excuse that neither murres nor egrets are state birds to dismiss this potential exception, but there doesn’t appear to be any record of their having done so, and while we tend not to trust pelicans in general (they’ve always seemed to us like the hippopotami of the avian world), Brown Pelicans seem to be more specialized and focused on fish than others like the European Great White Pelican, which has been known to walk up to pigeons in London, reach down, and swallow them whole. Back
4What about Lysistrata? some might themselves protest. Unfortunately, Lysistrata is a work of fiction, a farcical comedy; it never actually happened. And even if it had, we’d consider it more of a consumer boycott than a classic protest of the type we’re referring to. Back
5And other forms of violence, especially slavery. Back
6The reason for this, we believe, is fairly simple; our lives can only have meaning to the extent we contribute something directly or indirectly permanent to the world that would not have existed but for us, and this can only take the form of information of one kind or another, song, written word, genetic, etc.7 The fullness of time makes this very difficult to achieve because its unfathomable magnitude guarantees virtually everything about us–our thoughts, our ideas, our memories (as well as those of our offspring)–will recur in the course of generations, even if limited to the bounds of our identity. For this reason, it’s only by taking action that prevents the elimination of some current or future critical mass of information from the indices of life, in its perpetual struggle against the void, that our lives can be meaningful. This, in turn, requires that the information/potential information be as distant from our own identity as possible (preserving information carried by those similar to us is not likely to accomplish anything that randomness over time wouldn’t have produced as well), and that it be clearly vulnerable to elimination without our intervention. For the wealthy, the only reservoirs of information that seem likely to meet both conditions are those held and propagated by the poor and by other species. By contrast, spending time in Revolutionary War graveyards should disabuse them about the legacy of naming things after themselves. Back
6a Everything else, such as physical laws and properties, exists independent of us.
7 Of course, as the evangelicals have warned us for years, there is one politician who should be able to survive gaffe after gaffe, even revel in them and turn them to his advantage: the Antichrist. Back
8 If you believe fervently in the power of free markets (and probably despise capitalism–as antithetical to them–as a result), there’s a good chance you’ve spent a lot of your life as a successful new media entrepreneur. We have to laugh when we see statistics purporting to show plummeting numbers of small businesses in America, which are based on paperwork the government used to be able to compel you to fill out when such businesses required physical space for more than inventory. Back
9 OUR problem is only that there’s far more than enough to disqualify it from continuing to hold the highest office a bird can occupy in human eyes. And we’d also like those who’ve gone so far as to have the incumbent engraved into their skin to more fully support extending the same LOE for less rapacious avians like the Piping Plover, whom they decry as a mosquito-level nuisance spoiling their well-earned summer fun, even though, if we took this 1.7 ounce bird, blew it up to their size, and allowed it to buy homes (which shouldn’t be a problem since, as you can see, but for a couple of drops of black here and there, it’s almost entirely white10), the entire world’s population would barely fill the housing stock in Thomaston, Connecticut. Back
<9a In the current culture we live under, impoverished even at the emoji level, we feel obliged to make clear that this is a sharply sarcastic remark, intended to provoke angry laughter (in politics, is there any other kind these days?)
10 And maybe Hawai’i is the exception that proves the rule. Maybe because, as the world’s leading chest pounders about private property rights, and surely a responsible adult nation by the time we turned 117 (though we often still behave like children around the English), we should have left those islands in the hands of those who owned and governed them? Back
12 Though we can’t help but observe that a number of these agencies generally enjoyed your unstinting support until you helped a career criminal do what he does best–commit crimes–to get himself “elected,” at which point, when they continued to do their jobs while he continued his life’s work, he turned you against them for doing what you’d always praised them for doing before. Which is why we say you’re the ones with TDS, not the rest of us. Back
13 As usual, the exceptions prove the rule; invariably when we find more and more differences with another over time, it’s because we so quickly saw the qualities and characteristics we share, iow, we experienced the rush of falling in love, in all its many forms. When this flood is followed by water torture in the opposite direction, it naturally causes us to doubt, to think perhaps we were forcing the pieces together, that maybe they’re meant to be joined in some other way, or not directly at all. But it’s an illusion that creates disillusion when first we see all the positives, and then all the negatives, until the fresher negatives drive out the older positives; those who can see through this have the opportunity to reach a deeper level of love, to experience and understand the more fundamental ways in which we are joined. Love, after all, is the story of a planet; a fiery gaseous orb cooling into a small solid mass. Back
14 A choice that ought to strengthen, not weaken, their case for admission into Immigrant Nation.Back
15 Not to be confused with SAMCRO, though as you’ll see, such confusion would be understandable, AMRO is the abbreviation for American Robin bird banders use on the tiny rings they affix to track birds. The bander’s code for every species is the first two letters of its “first name” followed by the first two letters of its last. You can immediately establish yourself as serious on birding mailing lists by using these codes to refer to what you’ve seen, but it comes at a cost if you continue to do it; those of us who have to decode every message you send will find you insufferably pretentious, which is why this is the only time we’ll use one here, and only because we used the word Robin four times in the previous two sentences. Back
16 Someday the word “anthropomorphism” in all its tenses will occupy the same pride of place in our lexicon as phrenology–hopefully sooner than too late. As far as we’re concerned, this is the only correct definition Back
17 Ravens are extremely creative, but how likely is it that in addition to completely improvising his scheme, the bird would choose to try it out in a context and experiment that could easily get it killed? Ravens will eat anything–they don’t much care what it is–and are ingenious at finding ways to get it; it’s highly unlikely he’s desperate. All of which says he’s doing what he’s doing for the same reason most grifters do; because he knows the eagle is an easy mark. Back
18 By which we don’t mean a Trump supporter; it’s said that before the first snowflake in a winter storm hits the ground in DC and melts, all bread, milk, and eggs have vanished from every grocery store. Back
19 And for those who disagree, there’s a clear upside for you that we’re pretty sure you’ll find enticing: you’ll stand a much better chance of getting to the concession stand or the loo and back without missing any of the action. Back
20 Another spirit, fair play, requires us to disclose that AZ’s favorite sun is the Cactus Wren, Florida and Texas vouch for the Northern Mockingbird (which seems right, on multiple levels; less clear is whether either is truly competitive), Georgia is all in for the Brown Thrasher, Iowa’s choice is the Eastern/American Goldfinch, Maine favors the Chickadee (species unspecified; our advice would be to talk up the Black-capped in the Maine First, the Boreal in the Second), Nevada plumps for the Mountain Bluebird (GOP, take heed), New Hampshire the Purple Finch, North Carolina & Ohio, considered swing, but pretty red, cast their lot in with the Northern Cardinal, and Pennsylvania is drumming up support for the Ruffed Grouse. Is it worth mentioning there’s only one bird that’s literally the apple of two of the most competitive jurisdictions on the board? In the spirit of fair play, of course