Saving a National Symbol

Despite that invincible image, it is dealing with a mighty, modern-day threat.

Bringing Bison Back

On November 23, 2009, a U.S. bison herd was reintroduced as a seed herd for grassland recovery projects across Mexico.


By Christiana Ferris
Vea también en español

Smack-dab in the middle of the Mexican flag, perched atop a prickly-pear cactus with rattlesnake clutched between its beak and talon, is the mighty golden eagle.

Despite that invincible image, the golden eagle is dealing with a mighty, modern-day threat: power lines. Golden eagles and other raptors are suffering from electrocutions and collisions with power lines in alarming numbers.

Through the Golden Eagle Rescue Project, The Nature Conservancy is hoping to make Mexico’s network of power lines safer for the country’s national symbol.

A Powerful Symbol

Known in Spanish as the aguila real, or royal eagle, it’s a powerful national symbol stemming from an Aztec legend. The nomadic Mesoamerican tribe received divine instructions to establish an empire at the place where they found an eagle devouring a snake on a nopal cactus growing on a rock in the middle of a lake.

Versions of the legend vary, but one thing is certain: Mexicans identify with this regal bird. That Aztec empire was indeed established, and the place—modern-day Mexico City—was the capital of New Spain before the fight for independence began in 1810.

A Species Under Threat

Fast-forward 200 years and the golden eagle isn’t sitting so pretty anymore. Along just a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch of power lines that provide electricity to the Conservancy’s El Uno Ecological Reserve in northern Mexico, golden eagle fatalities average three per year. Extrapolated out to the larger area where the birds are found elsewhere in Mexico, the problem is grave indeed.

The golden eagle is particularly vulnerable because of its large wingspan, which can exceed two meters,” says Francisco Hernández, sub-director of projects and construction for the Federal Electricity Commission's (CFE) environmental and archaeological division. “Juvenile birds are more susceptible to electrocution because they are less experienced flyers and hunters.”

Rescuing the Golden Eagle

The Conservancy and local partners are working with the CFE to reduce collisions. Through the Golden Eagle Rescue Project, the CFE is adopting recommendations by the Conservancy and partners to make structural changes to the power network, such as replacing metal cross-arm braces with wooden ones on power poles.

The pilot site is the same 6-kilometer section of lines powering El Uno, in the Janos Valley in the state of Chihuahua. Additional partners include the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas and Agrupacion Dodo, among others. They are providing technical advice on eagle biology and behavior, priority species conservation, and structural changes to the power system that can save the birds.

Bird electrocution is a global problem, and power companies around the world are beginning to take action to prevent this tragedy,” says Nélida Barajas, freshwater specialist and coordinator of the Golden Eagle Rescue Project for the Conservancy. “It’s in the interests of power suppliers to reduce the likelihood of fatal contact for birds, which can cause power outages for their customers. And of course it’s good practice from an ethical standpoint, too.”

While the golden eagle is found throughout much of North America, its status in Mexico is threatened. Federal environmental agencies have declared it a top priority for protection. It’s also a key grassland species that helps maintain a healthy, functioning ecosystem thanks to its place at the top of food chain. It favors the wide, open spaces of the prairie, and power poles make ideal nesting and hunting perches.

Chihuahuans see the bird not only as a national icon but also as part of their local identity as grassland dwellers. They are proud that the golden eagle can be found soaring overhead in their skies. And ranchers view the bird as a friend in natural pest control, keeping the rodent population in check.

Barajas adds, “We want to make changes now that will help keep our national symbol flying in Mexican skies for the next 200 years.”


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