Creste Caracara

2010 Howard Platt Nature November 2010

By Howard Platt from the November 2010 Edition

The crested or northe rn caracara is a bird of legend and mystery. Legend has it that about a thousand years or so ago, a tribe called the Mexica, were drawn by a vision to migrate south and eastwards, to the valleys of central Mexico. They found a new home where they saw the sacred eagle perched on a cactus growing from a rocky outcrop. Nobody knows where the trek started, though it could have been from what is now Arizona or even Colorado. It ended in the Valley of Mexico in the present federal district, and that is where the tribe, called Aztec by the Spanish conquistadors, made their home. The caracara ranges from the south of Arizona and Texas down throughout Mexico. The ornithologist Martin del Campo identified it as the sacred eagle in

pre -Columbian Aztec codices. This is thought to be the bird that appears on the original war flag of Morelos from the war of independence, with its prominent crest clearly shown. The flag is faithful to the old legend, with the bird perched on a cactus.

Caracaras are raptors, hunters of the skies, and often feed on lizards, snakes and other live prey. They are not eagles but falcons and they like open or semi- open country with scattered trees and bushes. You may well see one or two in the trees leading to Manzanillo airport. However they are also comfortable walking around behind the plow enjoying whatever wildlife has been turned up, and it is not unusual to see small groups of them on the ground when farmers are plowing.

When young, they hang out with the vultures and feast on carrion – road kill usually – which is why you will often see them along the highways. Go where the food is – and in our society dead animals are usually littered along the roads. Although caracara are almost as tall as vultures, they are very much lighter and can get pushed aside by the bigger birds.

Caracaras are mainly dark brown to black, with white necks and faces, and white tails with a black tip. The crests are black, beaks orange-red, and they have long, yellow-colored legs Their wingspans are usually less than four feet, and adults weigh about 2.2 lbs on average.

When they mature, they pair into monogamous relationships, and aggressively defend their territory. The build nests of sticks in the trees and raise a small number of chicks.

It is a mystery how the legendary caracara changed into a golden eagle, when the painting was done for the image of the bird for the modern Mexican flag. No matter that this bird only lives in the more northern or highland states and is rarely seen. The law now governing the Mexican Coat of Arms and Flag, specify an , which is the golden eagle. ‘águila real’

However, the legend continues and a Google search in English will reveal many site that proclaim (incorrectly) the Caracara is the national bird of Mexico.

Download the full edition or view it online