Cross Timbers News
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells
Authors Note: Additional information concerning whether or not the caracara is the national bird of Mexico and bird depicted on its national flag has come to my attention . There has been a long standing misconception on my part and that of many others here in Texas concerning this issue, primarily since one of the common names of the crested caracara is also the Mexican eagle. Although I used references in preparing the article on the caracara that stated it was the national bird of Mexico, that is incorrect. The national bird of Mexico is the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). I apologize for this error.
Editors Note: It is not normally my practice to comment on authors' stories. This one however needed some further comment i felt. This very issue was dealt with on the Texas ornithologists' listserv last year, and no conclusive evidence was found to support a positive identification of the National Bird of Mexico as belonging to any species. Information presented was divided about whether the birds was a Golden Eagle or Caracara, or perhaps another species altogether. Nevertheless there is no government decree or document which declares identity. I have forwarded this discussion and links to Jim Dillard for his study. -- tg
The design and color of national flags usually depict cultural or historical events of the country and its people. Mexico’s flag is no exception. Its green, white and red banners represent hope, purity and the blood of their heroes. The coat of arms centered in the middle of the white section shows the left profile of a Mexican eagle standing on its left foot on a nopal cactus with a rattlesnake held it its right foot and mouth, ready to be devoured. The cactus is growing from a rock surrounded by water. It’s all based on an ancient Aztec legend.
The legend goes that Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and of the sun, told a wandering band of Indians traveling from Aztlán, present-day Nayarit, to look for a place where an eagle lands on a nopal cactus eating a snake, with the cactus growing out of a rock that is surrounded by water. They finally found such a place on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. There in 1325 they built their new home and called it Tenochtitlanon - “place of the prickly pear cactus.” Today, it’s downtown Mexico City.
Although the Mexican eagle or crested caracara (Polyborus plancus) is Mexico’s national bird, its range extends throughout South and Central America and northward to South and Central Texas, southern Arizona and an isolated population in central Florida. Populations in Florida have declined and they’re now listed as an endangered species there. In Texas, they’re classified as a protected species like all other raptors. You’re more likely to find them in South Texas, but occasionally they’re seen in the southern reaches of our Cross Timbers Country, particularly in open agricultural land, rangeland and prairie country with scattered trees. They’re nonmigratory. I’ve seen them on several occasions in Bosque, Hood, Johnson and Erath counties. Or a recent trip to South Texas, I observed a number of them along the highways between San Antonio and Edinburgh.
The translation of their scientific name is descriptive of their character: Poly means “many” and borus “gluttonous”; plancus means “flat-footed.” Considering the fact that they’re not really eagles, rather in the falcon Family Falconidae, we now have a bird that can best be described as a flat-footed falcon with a slight Spanish accent that just thinks it’s an eagle and likes to eat a lot. Other common names are Audubon’s caracara, caracara eagle, king buzzard and Mexican buzzard.
Crested caracaras are striking in appearance with their relatively long tail and neck, large head and black head cap with a shaggy crest on the back. Their neck and rump are white and the belly and black are dark brownish or black. The upper breast, wing panels and tail feathers have black barring on a white background. When observed in flight from below, white can be seen at four points: head, wing tips and tail. Bare red or orange skin surrounds their eyes and base (cere) of their big gray hooked beak that’s used to rip and tear flesh from carrion. Overall length is about 21 inches. Sexes look alike although females are a little bigger than males.
Their rounded wings span about four feet which they put to good use during slow early morning patrols along roads and highways looking for fresh or not-so-fresh road-kill cuisine. If soaring flight, their wings are held flat like an eagle. I once watched one over in Parker County feeding on a dead bullsnake that didn’t quite made it across a country road the night before. Other food items include fish, turtles, amphibians, bird eggs, nesting birds, crabs and worms.
Caracaras are opportunistic feeders and won’t pass up anything edible. They’re often seen feeding on carrion along with crows, hawks and vultures and may become aggressive around a carcass. If worse comes to worse, they’ll steal food from other birds or harass them until they upchuck their fill and then gobble it down. They’ll do the same thing to seagulls and pelicans down along the coast.
Mexican eagles spend a lot of time on the ground. They have long yellow legs and feet with blunt claws that enable them to go on foot pursuit of prey such as large insects, small mammals, snakes and lizards. They’ve been seen following tractors like seagulls hunting for critters stirred up by plows and will scratch the ground like a chicken in search of food items. Open-pit garbage dumps offer easy pick’ens. They’ll also hot foot around range fires looking for small mammals fleeing the smoke and flames.
The name caracara was derived from a native word in South America that is descriptive of their harsh grating, rattle call that sounds something like cara-cara-cara! Most of the time, they’re silent. During the breeding season, the call is a loud wick-wick-wick-wick-querrr and they’ll throw their head over their back on the last note. They’ll also give this call early in the morning or late in the evening throughout the year for no other reason than to just proclaim their presence.
Caracaras are the only member of the falcon family that builds a nest which is a collection of stick, vines and twigs with a center bowl lined with finer materials. The bulky and somewhat trashy nest is built by both members of the pair eight to 50 foot above the ground in the top of a shrub, tall yucca or tree. Nesting begins as early as mid-January. Usually two to three white or pinkish white eggs marked with brown are laid. Incubation is by both parents for 28 to 33 days but she does most of the sitting and waiting. Together they feed the young that will stay in the nest anywhere from six to eight weeks before they fly the coup to scavenge on their own. Adults will still offer their young tidbits for a while until they perfect their hunting skills.
Like our national bird the bald eagle, the crested caracara also has its own fair share of objectionable traits that make you wonder why it was ever chosen by Mexico. Maybe it’s because of their strong macho look, loud cry or reputation for tenacity and determination, living off the land no matter what it has to offer. Perhaps the Aztec gods knew the people of Mexico would always need a strong symbol of survival for their future trials and tribulations. I’m just glad this eagle look-alike calls parts of our Cross Timbers Country home. Until next time, I’ll see you down a Cross Timbers Country road and God Bless America!