By Ed Lusch
September 2002 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 19, Number 1
there one person reading this article who does not know the national
bird of the US? I'll wager a frothy mug brimming over with icy-cold
Negra Modelo, not one.
And I'll make that same bet that not one person
reading this article can correctly name the national bird of Mexico.
Any takers? No? A bit curious? Care to indulge me and find out? (Oh,
by the way, if you took a stab at the answer to Mexico's national bird,
I am pretty sure you owe me an icy-cold Negra Modelo.) Please read on.
In the world of raptors (hawks, falcons, eagles,
owls and their closely related cousins the vultures) food gathering
techniques consist of active hunting -as with the raptor family, and
scavenging as with the vulture clan.
Eagles will stoop to scavenging on occasion,
but generally they are active aerial hunters. One non-conformist raptor
species, however, is the consummate opportunist and will happily sit
among buzzards dining on rotten carrion (particularly road kill) and
will also attack and kill mammals, birds and reptiles-whatever it takes
to satiate its indiscriminate appetite.
This bird of eclectic tastes and dining habits
is the crested cara cara, nature's death from above and garbage gut.
Cara caras physically resemble both eagles and vultures: a featherless
red face, long legs bare from the knees down, black headdress, white
neck and cape, and a bill mid-way between eagle and vulture.
Perhaps due to their colorful plumage and adaptable
nature, the cara cara was honored with the title the National Bird of
Mexico-my Modelo, please. Sadly, cara cara species and sub-species are
threatened or endangered throughout much of their range. Their original
habitat included vast expanses of open, semi-arid landscapes or wetlands
and prairies from the extreme southern US through Mexico and into South
America-reduced or eliminated through much of their previous territories
due to habitat destruction, shooting and nesting moralities from the
lingering effects of DDT.
Cara Caras are protected under the US Endangered
Species Act, CITES(CONVENTION INTERNATION TRADE ENDANGERED SPECIES OF
WILD FLORA AND FAUNA) and Mexican wildlife laws (not enforced) but they
continue to decline as their habitat unravels and shooting continues.
The National Bird of Mexico, despite a history of exploitation and senseless
slaughter, has nevertheless adapted by becoming the ultimate survivor.
In fact, because of the cara cara's abilities to both scavenge and hunt,
and its remarkably regal stature, they were highly esteemed by the Mayan
and Aztecs, as well as other indigenous cultures of Meso-America. High
priests and kings wore ceremonial headdresses and capes made from the
plumage of cara caras and claws were adorned as jewelry by South American
and Central American native people.
In more recent times (hopefully not now), the
beak and talons were crushed and ground into powder and sold to the
desperately naive as a libido enhancing aphrodisiac (of course a stupid
notion, but thanks, Forrest Gump, for reminding us that "stupid
is as stupid does").
The diet of this eagle-like-vulture is, of course,
extremely varied but one sub-species the southern cara cara is exceptionally
adventurous in its tastes. It is known to feed upon baby anacondas,
boa constrictors, small crocodiles and caiman, making it the predator
This writer had the opportunity to view crested
cara caras while driving through the Sonoran Desert on the way to Lakeside.
We witnessed this bird tearing off bits of flesh from road kill goats,
along with several rather hideous looking vultures. This co-mingling
of gross carrion eaters and this bird of princely demure struck us as
an oxymoron of nature. But nature is rampant with such seeming contradictions:
witness the majestic African lion fighting with the unkempt-looking
hyena over a cheetah-killed gazelle.
Nesting habitats of cara caras include: desert
shrubs, live oaks, palmettos and an occasionally mangrove trees in swamps
or rivers where two or three brown mottled eggs are laid in nests constructed
of grasses or weeds lined with moss. Upon hatching, the chicks grow
rapidly on a parent- regurgitated diet of flesh. When ready to leave
the nest, (fledge) the youngsters will have a wingspan of four feet,
a body length of 21 inches. Unfortunately, caras are slow reproducers
and are having difficulty replenishing their diminishing population.
As the gorgeous illustration of Audubon's crested
cara cara on the cover of this month's El Ojo del Lago depicts, this
is a bird of royal stature and yet not afraid of getting its claws a
little dirty. Look closely at the left claw and you will see tightly
clasped in its talons, a rattlesnake. Add to the list of cara cara character
traits, courage; apropos of the National Bird of Mexico.
(Ed. Note: Señor Lusch is a man of many distinctions, only one
of which is that he holds the record for having had published the longest
article (some 4,500 words) ever to run in the immensely successful daily
periodical, USA TODAY.)