15 March 2013

Aztec Ruler Moctezuma of Tenochtitlan a Bird Enthusiast

When a military force arrived in new Spain from across the Atlantic Ocean, the Spanish leader Hernando Cortés effusively described the features and scenes.

The Aztec culture was flourishing in Mexico, and if there is but one advantage to the discovery, it is five particular letters — or cartas-relaciones — which express features of the country and actions to the Spanish emperor. The signature given at the end was "Hernán Cortés."

The second letter most vividly conveys conditions at Tenochtitlan at Lake Texcoco, the capital of the Aztec empire at the time, with interesting descriptions of a variety of topics, without the latter prevelant reports of conquest and warfare. Among a lengthy missive, sent on the 30th of October 1520 from Segura de la Frontera, Cortés mentions captive raptors, bird-watching from one of the ruler's palaces, and the sorts of birds which could be purchased at one of the local markets on a city square. Cortes was a resident in the city from November 1519, at least until May 1520, according to details given in this particular letter.

This letter was sent to: "Most High Mighty and Catholic Prince, Invincible Emperor, and our Sovereign Leige," otherwise known as Charles V, the son of Queen Dona Juana of Spain.

The following details are associated with the march to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, under the reign of Moctezuma, or as spelled Muteczuma by Cortes.

The city of Iztapalapa, with 12-15,000 inhabitants, was located on the shore of a large salt lake, where "wild duck, widgeon, and other waterfowl," occurred, "and in such number that often they almost cover the surface of the water," the military officer wrote.

Depiction of a market at Tlatelolco. From Wikipedia.

Just beyond was the "great city" of Tenochtitlan, situated at the center of a vast saltwater lake. There was also an adjacent freshwater lake, according to the chronicles.

There were many open squares within the city, in "which markets are continuously held and the general business of buying and selling proceeds."

Cortes described one particular market area in detail, conveying the first personal account for a game market in the Americas.

"The city has many open squares in which markets are continuously held and the general business of buying and selling proceeds. One square in particular is twice as big as that of Salamanca and completely surrounded by arcades where there are daily more than sixty thousand folk buying and selling. Every kind of merchandise such as may be met with in every land is for sale there, whether of food and victuals, or ornaments of gold and sliver, or lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails and feathers; limestone for building is likewise sold there, stone both rough and polished, bricks burnt and unburnt, wood of all kinds and in all stages of preparation. There is a street of game where they sell all manner of birds that are to be found in their country, including hens, partridges, quails, wild duck, fly-catchers, widgeon, turtle doves, pigeons, little birds in round nests made of grass, parrots, owls, eagles, vulcans, sparrow-hawks and kestrels; and of some of these birds of prey they sell the skins complete with feathers, head, bill and claws."

More than a dozen species are indicated, although the sparse details limit any opportunity to identify particular species, though many are known from the era. In particular:

  • hens were probably domestic chickens
  • partridges were probably some sort of grouse
  • the wild duck was probably the Mallard
  • flycatchers probably included a variety of small songbirds
  • widgeon may have been the American Wigeon, or other small ducks
  • turtle doves might have been the Mourning Dove, but other types of doves were present in middle America at this time
  • the vague appellation of pigeons had to have included any one of several species, ranging from the Rock Dove, the anyone of several other possible species
  • it would be impossible to define an id for the parrots, because of the many sorts present in the vicinity
  • owls ... nothing can be added on this
  • a few species of eagle could have been taken for sale in the market
  • vulcans were probably vultures, either the Black Vulture or Turkey Vulture
  • as to "sparrow-hawks and kestrels" this could refer to the American Kestrel.

Moctezuma personally had an obvious interest in live birds of many sorts. The narrative continues, with details on the "many houses of recreation" maintained by the Aztec ruler:

"... Another palace of his (not quite so fine as the one we were lodged in) had a magnificent garden with balconies overhanging it, the pillars and flagstones of which were all jasper beautifully worked. In this palace there was room to lodge two powerful princes with all their retinue. There were also ten pools of water in which were kept every kind of waterfowl known in these parts, fresh water being provided for the river birds, salt for those of the seam and the water itself being frequently changed to keep it pure; every species of bird, moreover, was provided with its own natural foods, whether fish, worms, maize or the smaller cereals. And I can vouch for it to your Majesty that those birds who ate fish alone and nothing else received some two hundred and fifty pounds of it every day, which was caught in the salt lake. It was the whole task of three hundred men to look after these birds. Others likewise were employed in ministering to those who were ill. Each pool was overhung by balconies cunningly arranged, from which Muteczuma would delight to watch the birds."

The Spaniard's letter continues and describes another interesting place kept by Moctezuma:

"He had also another very beautiful house in which there was a large courtyard, paved very prettily with flagstones in the manner of a chessboard. In this palace there were cages some nine feet high and six yards round; each of these was half covered with tiles and the other half by wooden trellis skilfully made. They contained birds of prey, and there was an example of every one that is known in Spain, from kestrel to eagle, and many others which were new to use. Of each species there were many examples. In the covered part of every cage there was a stake upon which the bird could perch and another under the wooden grating, so that the birds could go inside at nighttime and when it was raining and in the daytime come out into the sun and air. They were fed daily on chickens as their sole fare."

Obviously, Moctezuma was the first known bird enthusiast/watcher in the western hemisphere, thanks to the letter.

Other details given in the five letters make them a very interesting read, rich in details of a time and place 500 years in the past.