The Mexican flag is one of many that bears a bird as one of its symbols, alongside Ecuador, Guatemala, Dominica, Uganda, and Papua New Guinea, to name but a few. The Mexican tricolor is green, white, and red, with its coat of arms at the center stripe.
So, what is the national bird of Mexico that appears on the Mexican flag?
The national bird of Mexico that appears on its flag is the Golden eagle, also known as the Royal eagle in Mexico (El Águila Real). The large, golden bird is depicted sitting atop a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake.
Some sources also identify the Crested caracara as the national bird of Mexico, as this bird appears in pre-Columbian Aztec codices. The Mexican ornithologist Rafael Martín del Campo proposed that early depictions of the Crested caracara were later mistaken for the Golden eagle.
The flag of Mexico, featuring the Golden Eagle
The national bird of Mexico, the Golden Eagle
Rafael Martín del Campo argued that the Golden eagle wasn’t a widespread species in Mexico when the Aztec codices were produced. Therefore, there is some controversy about whether or not the Golden eagle is absolutely appropriate as Mexico’s national bird.
However, the Golden eagle certainly holds symbological meaning in other Mexican codices. As the legend goes, the god Huitzilopochtli instructed the early Aztecs to search for an eagle devouring a snake atop a prickly pear - this would be the ideal location for founding their capital.
The Aztecs came across exactly that at Lake Texcoco, which is where they founded Tenochtitlan - the center of the Aztec Empire.
Read on to discover more fascinating facts about the national bird of Mexico.
Some sources cite the Crested caracara as another national bird, due to it appearing in pre-Columbian Aztec codices
The Golden eagle is strongly associated with Aztec and pre-Aztec symbology. Before the Aztecs first established their empire in around 1428, Mexico and its surrounding areas were inhabited by the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Zapotec, and Maya. As a result, eagles appear in ancient Mesoamerican art dating back to some 500BC.
Once the Aztecs established themselves in modern-day Mexico, the Golden eagle appeared in important Aztec Codices, including the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Ramírez Codex, and Codex Mendoza. In the Ramírez Codex, the bird was depicted sitting atop a prickly pear cactus devouring a serpent.
According to the text, the god Huitzilopochtli asked the Tenochtitlan people to search for an eagle devouring a snake atop the cactus - which is what they discovered at the center of Lake Texcoco, the founding place of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The eagle itself was connected to Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war.
Golden Eagle in flight, soaring high in the sky
There are numerous controversies surrounding this version of events, however. For example, while the modern-day incarnation of the legend supposes that the eagle was devouring the snake, anthropologists and historians pointed out that the texts do not specify that the creature was a snake.
Moreover, snakes had their important symbolism in Aztec symbology and were associated with wisdom through the god Quetzalcoatl. Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense for the eagle to be devouring another symbolically important creature.
One theory suggests that the original texts were mistranslated; ihuan cohuatl izomocayan, meaning "the snake hisses," was mistranslated as "the snake is torn." Once the Spanish conquistadors overthrew the Aztecs, the codices were pieced into a coat of arms that conformed to European heraldic tradition.
The Golden eagle’s attack on the snake symbolizes good versus evil, but this may have been mistranslated from the original codices in which the coat of arms was derived.
Another controversy posits that the Golden eagle is misinterpreted and that birds that appear in the original codices are the Crested caracara. Mexican ornithologist Rafael Martín del Campo studied early depictions of birds in the Aztec codices and remarked that their plumage didn’t properly fit the Golden eagle, which was probably scarce across the region at the time.
A Mexican archaeological magazine wrote, “How was it possible that the national bird was represented as a golden eagle (Aquila chrisaetos) when this species had always been a rare bird on Mexican soil? Astute observer of archaeology, Martín del Campo also noted that the plumage traits and diet with which pre-Hispanic representations of the sacred cuauhtli (eagle) were associated did not correspond to those of the golden eagle.”
Golden Eagle on the hunt for prey
The Golden eagle started appearing in Aztec symbology around 1325 when they founded Tenochtitlán. The Aztec codices contain numerous depictions of eagles and other birds, which some rumor to be the Crested caracara - a member of the falcon family.
Once the conquistadors seized Tenochtitlán in 1521, the region's history was drawn up by Father Durán, a Dominican friar that produced the first westernized historical works of Mexico.
This is when the eagle atop the prickly pear cactus with a snake in its mouth first started appearing in post-Aztec Mexican symbology. Numerous paintings were created that showed the Golden eagle atop the prickly pear.
It wasn’t until 1812, during the Independence war, that José María Morelos y Pavón used this icon as a flag.
In 1821, the coat of arms was adapted to the European heraldic style. In 1887, a flag similar to the Mexican flag today was produced as a French-style tricolor.
In 1984, President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado enshrined the symbol as law.
The current Mexican flag is an interpretation of Aztec legend - but not necessarily the right interpretation!
Golden Eagle standing on the ground
The Golden eagle is one of the largest and most handsome raptors and has a long and illustrious history of symbolism that dates back thousands of years to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Like many eagles, the Golden eagle represents strength, courage, power, and wisdom. To the Aztecs specifically, it represented war and was heavily associated with warriors - sometimes called “Eagle warriors.”
The Golden eagle is also connected to the sun god and god of war, Huitzilopochtli. Cuauhtli, meaning eagle, is an important day in the Aztec calendar.
Golden Eagle coming in to land
The Golden eagle is a large raptor from the Northern Hemisphere and is the most widely distributed eagle. This colossal bird is around the 4th or 5th largest eagle, measuring 66 to 102cm (26 to 40in) in length, with a wingspan of 1.8 to 2.34m (5ft 11in to 7ft 8in).
Mexico is not the only country to adopt the Golden eagle as its national bird. It’s the most common national bird in the world, as adopted by five nations; Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
This highly adaptable eagle lives across much of North and Central America, stretching from Canada and Alaska south to Mexico. It’s also widespread across Europe, stretching from the UK to eastern Russia, China, Central Asia, and areas of North Africa and the Middle East. You can even find Golden eagles in Japan.
This eagle’s broad distribution is a testament to how skilled and adaptable the bird is. Golden eagles are expert hunters that can reach diving speeds of some 320 km/h (199mph).
They have important symbological meaning, not just in the Americas but across Europe and Asia too. For example, the Greeks and Romans associated the Golden eagle with the gods Jupiter and Zeus. It plays an important role in ancient Arabic and Middle Eastern legends. In Japan, the Golden eagle is linked to Tengu - a monster-human bird that protects the mountains.
Golden eagles thrive in a wide range of habitats, from forested lowlands to deserts and mountainous upland areas, though they generally prefer contoured upland environments.
Historically, Golden Eagles have been always important in symbological meaning
The Golden eagle is the national animal of Mexico by law. While the Golden eagle was only enshrined as such in law in 1984, the bird has been associated with Mexico for thousands of years. Civilizations predating the Aztecs held the Golden eagle in high regard, but it wasn’t until the rise and fall of the Aztecs that it became interwoven into modern Mexican culture.
The dahlia was declared the national flower of Mexico in 1963. Dahlia tubers were grown as an agricultural crop by the Aztecs.
The Golden eagle is the official national bird of Mexico. However, the Crested caracara is sometimes cited as the “original” national bird due to its importance in Aztec symbolism. In fact, some argue that the Crested caracara was mistaken for a Golden eagle.
The modern Mexican flag depicts a Golden eagle atop a prickly pear cactus with a snake in its mouth. This is the Mexican coat of arms and depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.
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