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"A Balloon In Cactus"

Means More Than FaceFace

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
It’s an oddity that most people I’ve asked don’t know the National Bird of Mexico, especially considering that everyone seems to know that the eagle is the U.S. National Bird. I only learned yesterday what Mexico’s National Bird is. It's the Crested Caracara, a mix between an eagle and a vulture or buzzard, and cousin to the falcon.

Though these large birds weigh in at about three pounds and are approximately two feet long with a wingspan of four feet, they’d rather hang out mostly on the ground, using their long legs to outrun humans. It’s not that they’re afraid of us; it’s more that they like to show off how fast they are. They’re so fast, they’ve even been known to chase down a jackrabbit. The Crested Caracara has also been known to wrestle with a snake. I can only guess who won.
Caracara feeding on snake
TE photo
It has been said that the male offspring of a male Caracara and a female chicken are the fiercest fighters, and nearly invincible in cockfights. Of course, if I were a chicken, I doubt I’d be interesting in dating a guy with a flat head, an orange face and a pointy blue nose who scavenges for road kill and dead fish because he’s too lazy to hunt for his own food.

It seems the Caracaras must have expensive lobbyists representing them in Washington DC. The United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects Crested Caracaras as an endangered species, even though these big birds only visit Arizona, Florida, and Texas. This leaves the remaining 47 states to the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-Footed Booby and Dark-Rumped Petrel. However, in Mexico, where Caracaras have the exalted title of National Bird, humans sometimes eat them. Go figure.

Crested Caracaras have a raspy, grunting vocal sound when gossiping with one another or trying to get a date. Nature photographer Greg Lasley says, “During the vocalization the bird thrusts its head sharply upward, and sometimes it’s thrust so far that the bird’s head is upside down over its back.”

They have no real natural predators who prey on them for food except for man, since they spend a great deal of time on the ground. They will make a shrieking noise when they feel threatened and throw their heads back in the air then snap them forward so hard and fast, you wonder why they don’t break their little necks. Their facial skin color may change from orangey-red to yellow when excited or threatened. They make a sound that is very harsh, and sounds like “cara cara” that gives them their name. When mating the same head-rolling and rattling are also things the male does to attract a mate. They must get this idea from watching Mick Jagger videos.

The nest of the Caracara is quite large and made of twigs and such. Many layers are used, with a new layer added each year. In many cases they will reuse the same nest year after year. The female will lay two or three eggs and the male helps to warm and incubate them during the 28 days it takes them to hatch. The adults eat mainly carrion but they do kill fresh meat for their young, who remain in the nest for three months minimum, sometimes longer. Like human kids, it’s not easy to get your young ones to leave home either, considering it’s free room and board.

Caracaras will fly the highways nearly every morning to eat animals that traffic has killed during the night and if they’re unable to pick apart the carrion themselves, they wait for kin vulture to do so and then move in and take it away from him. Hey, nobody said they were stupid.

One strange behavior they do have is that they will attack brown pelicans returning to the nest with food for their young, forcing them to disgorge what they’ve caught and then stealing it. I suppose they could market that as “predigested” the way they market cars as “pre-owned.” Either that or they choose only bulemic pelicans. They will also watch for turtles laying eggs and dig those up assuming, I guess, that the turtles, which do not return to the nest, will never find out.

Caracaras will scratch like chickens for worms and insects, and hunt small animals such as skunks, ‘possums, rats, squirrels, frogs, crabs and even young alligators.

This bird has been called Caracara Eagle, King Buzzard, Mexican Eagle, Audubon’s Caracara, and Mexican Buzzard.

Groups of birds in general are called a “flock,” but really interesting birds have special names, like a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches. However, the Caracara, being related to so many others, has a choice of four: convocation of eagles, cast of falcons, venue of vultures (unless they are flying in which case they’d be a kettle of vultures), or a wake of buzzards.

Speaking of buzzards, two of them were preparing to migrate north for the summer but, after talking about it, they decided they were too old to fly all that way, so they decided to take a plane. As they were about to board the aircraft, the flight attendant, noticing that both buzzards were carrying a dead armadillo, asked, "Would you like to check those armadillos through as luggage?" "No thanks," the buzzards replied, "they're carrion."

© Maggie Van Ostrand

"A Balloon In Cactus" September 17, 2010 column

Related Article:

Cara Cara by John Troesser

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