"Mexico's National Bird"
By Ed Lusch
September 2002 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 19, Number 1

    Is 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 of predators.
    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.)

Read About Mexico