By Vern and Lori Gieger
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
Many have seen a soaring eagle or a circling buzzard, but few are familiar with the crested caracara. This dashing and noble bird is a medium-sized raptor, and is what some may say is a cross between the two. The distinctive Crested Caracara combines the raptorial instincts of the eagle with the carrion-feeding habits of the vulture. They are sometimes called a Mexican buzzard, due to its habit of scavenging alongside vultures; the crested Caracara is an opportunist and is commonly seen walking about open fields and pastures, feeding on a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate prey, as well as on carrion.
These birds will eat almost anything including insects, frogs, crabs, small birds, lizards, rats, snakes, fish, etc. They have even been known to steal food from other wildlife. They are not finicky eaters. A caracara might be found pursuing a jackrabbit or wrestling with a snake; a caracara will do just about anything for a meal.
The caracara with its bold black-and-white plumage pattern and bright yellow-orange face and legs, is easily recognizable. When excited the bare skin on the face of the crested caracara can change from orange to yellow in seconds; this may be a social signal of good health or prowess, or to indicate occupation of a territory. In flight it can be distinguished by its regular, powerful wing-beats as it cruises low across the ground or just above the treetops.
The Crested Caracara is often referred to as the “four-point bird” because it shows white at all four points in flight, head, tail, and wingtips. There is a black terminal band on the tail, and it has a black shaggy crest on a white head and neck. The crest makes it look a little like a Bald Eagle. The body is black, but many birds have a dark brown tint to them. Graceful in the air, these birds do have an awkward appearance as they stand and walk upright on the ground to feed, with very long legs in comparison to body size.
The Crested Caracara is a bird of open habitats, typically grassland, prairie, pastures, or desert with scattered taller trees, shrubs, or cacti in which it nests. Most raptors are usually seen flying in the sky; however the crested caracaras are commonly seen running across the ground. Although it looks like a long-legged hawk, it is actually in the same family as falcons. Unlike the falcons the caracaras are not fast-flying aerial hunters, in comparison they are sluggish scavengers.
Adult pairs are normally monogamous and highly territorial, they exhibit strong site fidelity. The young will remain with their parents for several months after fledging, even though sometimes, two broods are raised per year. Consistently gregarious, they tend congregate in groups.
The Crested Caracara ranges from Mexico to the United States but it occurs only along the southern border in Texas and Arizona, and in Florida, where there are isolated populations in the south-central peninsula. Although caracaras have few natural predators, with the exception of man, habitat loss is a threat. Caracaras can exist where there is open land, even if developed as farmland or landfill, but cannot live in highly populated areas.