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Commonly called the “Mexican eagle,” the Crested Caracara is an all-around fascinating bird that I hope to see during my upcoming travel to Baja California Sur, Mexico. It’s the natural bird of Mexico, after all!
The Crested Caracara is a member of the order Falconiformes and the family Falconidae, along with falcons and kestrels, but it looks like a tropical hawk and acts like vultures. They are massive birds that rank as the second largest falcon behind the Gyrfalcon.
These fierce birds have bold personalities and aren’t particularly shy. You can spot them walking around looking for food, unconcerned with potential predators because no one would dare mess with them.
Let’s get into the details and discover more about this fascinating and prehistoric-looking bird!
How to Identify a Crested Caracara
When you see a Crested Caracara, you will definitely know you’re looking at something out of the ordinary. You might be confused about whether it’s a vulture or a hawk, but as you take a closer look, you’ll be able to easily identify it as the Crested Caracara, a black and white tropical falcon.
Size & Shape
They are large raptors, about the size of an Osprey, with big heads, long tails, and long yellow legs. They have prominent and hooked bills that have a blue hue. They are larger than a Peregrine Falcon but smaller than a Turkey Vulture.
They are the second largest falcon by body mass behind the Gyrfalcon, with a length of 19 to 22 inches and a wingspan of 48 to 49 inches. They weigh 37 to 45 ounces.
Crested Caracaras have just that, a crest. Their crests are shaggy and black and extend just below the eyes to the back of the head. Their yellow-orange skin around their bills and yellow legs are clear indicators of the species. They have buffy-white necks and cheeks with white wingtips and tails. However, the tips of their tail feathers are black. Their chests and upper backs are lightly barred with light and dark brown streaking. They have black wings, backs, and underparts.
Where Does a Crested Caracara Live: Distribution & Habitat
Caracaras are non-migratory birds that can be found in Central America and along the Mexican – American border. Their range begins in Baja California, and extends to southeastern Texas. Isolated populations exist in the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, Cuba, central Florida, and Louisiana.
They are found in the following countries:
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
- Trinidad and Tobago
- United States
Their range in the United States is limited, and I wouldn’t count on finding one there. Florida has listed the Crested Caracara as a threatened species, and mating pairs are protected on private lands.
The Crested Caracara is the national bird of Mexico and can commonly be found stalking prey on foot or scouring roadsides for feeding opportunities. Much like vultures, these birds clean up carcasses.
The Crested Caracara thrives in open prairies, grasslands, savannahs, river edges, and deserts. They are found in arid, tropical, and temperate climates with some wet areas. These provide the best opportunities for hunting and the scrubby regions for nesting.
From sea level to 10,000 feet, the Crested Caracara avoids areas with dense foliage and ground cover. Scrubby plants and a few nearby trees are all this bird needs for optimal conditions. Occasionally, their opportunistic nature causes them to find a home near agricultural buildings like slaughterhouses, henhouses, and landfills.
Crested Caracara Diet and Feeding
The Crested Caracara is an opportunistic forager and scavenger whose diet consists mainly of carrion or decaying flesh of dead animals. While they love a free meal, they also hunt and consume living prey such as insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Like other raptors, they are common nest raiders and consume eggs and small birds.
Like vultures, this bird will fly along highways searching for roadkill, but unlike vultures, they cannot open large carcasses on their own and must wait for assistance. Sometimes they join in with vultures for communal feeding. Once another animal has opened a carcass, the Crested Caracara swiftly steals the food away.
Crested Caracaras are efficient and resourceful. While walking around, they use their feet to dig up insects. When fishing, they seek out shallow water and snatch fish using their feet and overturn debris to see what potential food might be hiding underneath.
I mentioned above that Crested Caracaras can be found near agricultural buildings. Wildfires and circling vultures indicate that food is available, and the Crested Caracara is sure to be near. When farm animals flee or die, this innovative bird uses it as a chance to eat.
Crested Caracara Breeding
Primarily monogamous, once the Crested Caracara finds a mate, the pair sticks together for several years, if not their entire lives.
Courtship displays begin at three years old and are used to find the perfect partner. Males can be observed tossing their heads back while vocalizing a throaty call. During this display, their necks look like noodles or goosenecks easily bent backward. It is an interesting dating approach but certainly not the strangest we’ve seen in birds.
From January to March, breeding is this bird’s primary focus. Crested Caracaras do not migrate, and breeding occurs in the southernmost part of the bird’s range. The timeframe is flexible in areas that are warm year-round.
Crested Caracara Nesting
When this intriguing bird has found their match, the pair of mated Caracaras begins building a nest made of twigs and vines. This behavior is not observed among falcons, but caracaras are unique in many ways, including this one! It is uncommon for a member of the Falconidae family to use nesting materials.
Falcons typically reuse an abandoned nest or create a depression in the earth using their beaks. This depression is called a scrape. Scrapes are usually 9 inches wide and about 2 inches deep. Unlike their family members, the Crested Caracara selects a shrub, tree, or cactus in which to build their nests. Cabbage palm trees are common nesting sites. Nesting sites are typically between 8 to 50 feet above the ground.
Twigs and vines are meticulously weaved to create a bulky bowl that is 2 feet across. This process takes the pair between 2 to 4 weeks. The timeline varies because sometimes the pair will decide to rehab an existing nest that is no longer in use. The pair returns to nesting sites each year and sometimes even the same tree. Why build from scratch when you’ve got a perfectly decent nest nearby?
Crested Caracara Eggs
The eggs of a Crested Caracara are cinnamon brown and speckled, about 2 to 3 inches in length and 1.4 to 2.4 inches wide. The female will produce a clutch of 2 to 3 eggs that she incubates for 30 to 33 days.
Broods of one to two chicks are the most common. When the babies are born, they are covered in down and remain dependent on their parents for eight weeks. After eight weeks, the chicks fledge but stay close to the nest for up to three months. Once they are entirely self-sufficient, young birds will travel long distances to establish their own territories.
Crested Caracara Population
Crested Caracaras are not often seen throughout their range in the United States but are more commonly found in Mexico and Central America. This creates hurdles for conservationists to monitor their population numbers effectively.
The North American Breeding Bird Survey observed a 6% increase in their population from 1966 to 2019, and Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million.
Is Crested Caracara Endangered?
The Crested Caracara is not endangered. Crested Caracaras are ranked 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, classifying them as a species of low concern. However, that rating does not necessarily mean we shouldn’t take precautions towards protecting the species.
In Flordia, the Crested Caracaras are listed as a threatened species. This is due to their limited range in the state and low numbers. They have sought refuge on private land in Florida, and mating pairs are observed and protected within Avon Park, an Air Force bombing range.
Concern for the species’ well-being results from habitat loss throughout their range. The expansion of commercial and agricultural industries has destroyed essential territories for the Crested Caracara. Additionally, an increase in automobiles makes these birds susceptible to car accidents.
On top of population concerns, the Crested Caracara has a low fertility rate. For all these reasons, it’s important to remain respectful of their territory and protect them whenever possible.
Is Crested Caracara Extinct?
While the Crested Caracara is not extinct, their Falconidae counterpart, the Guadalupe Caracara, is extinct. This species of caracara was native to Guadalupe Island in Mexico until the early 20th century.
Humans drove the extinction of the Guadalupe Caracara. Goat herders and chicken farmers were tired of these predatory birds killing members of their flocks. A campaign to hunt and poison the birds was the ultimate downfall of the species. After reading the excerpt from Extinct Birds, by Errol Fuller, it becomes a little easier to understand the human point of view, but I do fear it is an exaggerated account of the truth.
The excerpt describes the Guadalupe Caracara as an evil and destructive bird that preys on newborn goats the minute they are born. Sometimes the birds collected in groups to deliver swift attacks. Farmers claimed that the Guadelupe Caracara opted for living prey even when the birds had carcasses nearby and had a hard time watching the gruesome attacks of these helpless animals. They felt they had no other choice than to eradicate the species.
Still, I’m not entirely sure that hunting and poisoning were the proper precautions to take. By 1906, there were zero sightings of this misunderstood bird. Learning from past transgressions, humans should right this wrong by ensuring the conservation and protection of the Crested Caracara.
Crested Caracara Behavior
This unique and exciting diurnal bird can be seen flying near the ground, low and slow. They keep their wings flat while searching the area beneath them for food opportunities. When they stalk live prey, they do so on foot which is unusual for birds.
In flight, the Crested Caracara can be seen flying directly to its intended destination. They do not soar leisurely through the sky as some other falcons.
The Crested Caracara maintains its territory year-round and will return to the same nesting site or tree each breeding season and travel based on food availability.
These birds are prone to wearing their feelings on their skin. Blood flow becomes restricted when they experience excitement or stress, which turns the orange-red skin around their beak yellow. It can be compared to blushing or turning white with fear in humans.
Crested Caracara Predators
Adult Crested Caracaras have no known natural predators. Hey, that’s the perk of being big and bad! Nest raiders like raccoons and crows have been known to strike on eggs and nestlings when the opportunity presents itself. Additionally, fire ants can overtake nestlings.
Crested Caracara Lifespan
Banded in Florida in 1994, the oldest documented Crested Caracara was 21 years and nine months old. Researchers estimate that these birds can live up to 25 years in the wild. The largest hurdle for this bird of prey is surviving the first year of life when it is most vulnerable. Once they have proved themselves to be self-sufficient, their chances of survival increase significantly.
Answer: Crested Caracaras can be found in the south Texas brush country region. They breed from January to September.
Answer: The Crested Caracara is the national bird of Mexico, but the golden eagle is displayed on the Mexican flag.
Answer: The Crested Caracara, although vulture-like in its hunting approach and hawk-like in flight, this bird is a falcon and member of the family Falconidae. It is the only falcon known to collect nesting materials.
Answer: Crested Caracaras are found in limited regions of the United States. Small groups have been found in south-central Florida, Texas, and Arkansas. Large populations thrive in Mexico and Central America.
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