Confusion is a human condition. Whether it be setting the alarm on a modern oven, dealing with foreign call centers or understanding Stephen Hawking’s theories, we are easily muddled. Take, for example, the Mexican national bird. The Crested Caracara, often referred to as the “Mexican Eagle,” is in fact thought to be the bird depicted on the original national emblem and flag of Mexico. The modern Mexican emblem and flag show a Golden Eagle. So what gives?
The confusion turns on an old Aztec legend. According to the legend, the leader of a nomadic tribe was visited by a god named Huitzilopochtli in a dream. The god said the tribe would come across an eagle, perched on a cactus, devouring a snake. It was at that spot, according to the deity, that a great Aztec city should be built. As it turned out that place did indeed become the seat of the Aztec empire in the 15th century. This was Tenochtitlan, later to become Mexico City. Crested Caracaras weren’t common there then and they look nothing like the bird on the modern seal—but Golden Eagles were, and do. Spanish historians apparently interpreted the original image as a Golden Eagle. So the caracara got screwed and the Golden Eagle is now the national bird of Mexico. Makes about as much sense as our Electoral College!
I’ll never forget my first sighting of a pair of Crested Caracaras. It was central Texas hot, the air vibrating and the land dry as an old orange peel. It was so hot the sun drew the color from everything—everything except two resplendent birds in a pasture. Decked out in large dark bodies with necks, tails and wings splashed in white and sporting long yellow legs, they were like custom hotrods with thousand dollar paint jobs. So striking were they, I was forced to do a double-take and look closer.
These were the most brilliantly marked birds I had ever seen. Their heads were topped by rakish black skullcaps with sharply hooked yellow beaks and orangish-red facial skin—two orchids in the grass. They looked like avian terrorists in ski masks! Then, flouting four-foot wingspans, they ascended to cruising altitude, banked and soared out of sight.
Ever since that happenstance meeting, I have savored my encounters with this majestic bird—and there have been plenty of them, especially when visiting state parks in south Texas. It is not uncommon to see them walking on the ground . . . they can cover a lot of real estate very quickly with those strong legs. For birds of such beauty they look out of place on the ground, like Cattle Egrets do. Equally often I saw them on fence posts, perched in a low tree, atop a utility pole or searching for nearby ground activity. I have never actually seen them make a kill. I do, however, remember watching caracaras crash a roadside gathering of Black Vultures, scatter the wake and feast on the abandoned carrion.
Even forgiving the mystery about the Mexican flag, Crested Caracaras continue to perplex naturalists to this day. They are classified as birds of prey in the family Falconidae. When you think of falcons, you think of fast-flying aerial hunters, right? Caracaras tend to hang out on the ground, scratching like chickens, turning over branches and cow dung looking for morsels. They regularly watch for a kettle of swarming vultures, hoping to steal the prize. They can also chase down live prey on foot but it tends to be immobile, injured, incapacitated or young. If they really are falcons, they are the only one that’s not a cavity dweller—caracaras build nests. So, let’s add this up. Caracaras look like eagles, forage on the ground like chickens, eat carrion like vultures . . . but are considered falcons! Perhaps the taxonomy of caracaras needs more study.
Three biological species of caracaras are currently recognized: the insular Guadalupe Caracara (Caracara lutosus), extinct as of 1900, and two extant continental species: Northern Crested Caracara (C. cheriway), which is found in the southern United States, parts of Mexico and Central America, northern South America, and Cuba, and the Southern Caracara (C. plancus), found in eastern and southern South America. Within the U.S. most caracaras live in south Texas, Arizona and Florida, with Texas having the largest breeding population. But they appear to be on the move. Of late—since 2012 through last year—Northern Crested Caracaras have been spotted or photographed as far away as California, Michigan and New Brunswick, Canada, but only in small numbers.
They are not forest dwellers. Northern Crested Caracaras in Texas prefer grassy areas such as prairies, farmland, brush lands, open fields and golf courses. These habitats often contain or are adjacent to low chaparral, mesquite, cactus, thorn scrub, oak, deciduous woods, elm, ash, cedar, hackberry and large rose bushes. The nastier, the better.
Despite their penchant for noxious, thorny bush country in Texas and for reasons known only to the caracaras, neighboring Gonzales County has the highest concentration of these gorgeous birds in the entire U.S. In fact, nearby Palmetto State Park (article: https://txmn.org/lostpines/2016/06/ ) is where the Audubon Society takes its annual caracara census. Oddly, Crested Caracaras are protected as endangered species in the U.S. by the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But not in Mexico—next time you are south of the border make sure you ask what’s in your street taco (Mexicans have been known to chow down on them!).
Given their preferred habitat, caracaras place their sturdy nests in trees or shrubs less than 20 feet above the ground. Some nest in grasses, but most choose above ground bungalows. The nesting season is from December to May and is a bit earlier the closer the birds live to the tropics. Seemingly very adaptable, you can see them alone, in pairs or in larger gatherings for roosting or around abundant food sources.
Happy parents usually protect from one to four cinnamon-colored eggs, blotched with various shades of brown. One brood a year is normal. They take turns incubating anywhere from 30 to 33 days before the chicks begin to poke through their shells. First solo flights normally happen after 7-8 weeks but the diligent parents will continue to feed the fledglings for at least another two months. The prissy parents preen daily, setting a fastidious example for their offspring. Even while on their own, youngsters have been known to hang around their parents’ territory for up to 10 months.
Unlike most vultures, which can grow mighty hungry waiting for something to die, caracaras truly are birds of prey. They have been known to run down their prey by foot, even wade in shallow water. Favorite foods include insects, frogs, crabs, reptiles, small to large rodents, mammals and other birds. As noted, they cherish road kill, as it means a free meal without having to really work for it. All you gotta do is scare off a bunch of sissy vultures—not difficult if you are a violent gang of banditos from south of the border. Caracaras have no known predators, except for man.
And what’s with that strange name? It’s alleged to be derived from Brazilian Indians describing the high harsh cackle of the birds. This rattling call is often done while throwing the head backwards in something known as the head throwback display. This is a slow-motion move whereby the bird tosses its head backward until its topknot touches its upper back. It can hold this position for some time while it continues to call. This odd behavior appears to be used whenever taking over rival territory or whenever stealing food from the original owner. While on the subject of odd behavior, this bird can alter the coloration of is facial skin depending on its activity and disposition. From pale blue-gray, to pinkish-red and on to bright red, this built in “mood ring” further distinguishes the raptor from its brothers and sisters.
In Nature everything has a reason for being. There’s more gaps in this story than in a five-year-old’s smile. So what is God’s purpose for this mystifying bird? For such a quandary of the Universe, I turned to our own chapter’s Carroll Moore. Carroll has traveled the world extensively observing and learning about birds. He says: “I’ve always found it interesting that South America was the only continent besides Antarctica that had no members of the Corvus genus [Crow family]. They’re throughout the world except there.” He goes on to suggest, “Could it be the caracara was meant to fill this void?”
Hmmm. That statement caused my mind to roam in alarming new pastures. It could be a better explanation for Mexico’s flag—who, after all, wants a surrogate Crow as their national emblem?