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The Crested Caracara

by Mike Scully

This article first appeared in the August 2004 issue of the San Antonio Audubon News.

Since my arrival in Texas some twenty years ago, the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway) has seemed among the oddest of raptors. Some Caracara behaviors are easily understood, such as their patrolling for road kills in the early morning before the vultures have yet taken wing. On other occasions the purpose of their activity seems less clear, most often I have seen them flying steadily along as if on some errand. Their wing beats are strong and steady yet they are clearly not built for speed. Likewise, their wings and tail are long and rounded yet they are rarely seen soaring. Their long legs at least make sense: Caracaras spend much time on the ground and are often seen walking placidly about in open fields. Also, the bare skin on the face likely helps when taking carrion.Caracara

The Crested Caracara is another one of those primarily tropical species that reaches its northern range limit in our state. Most closely related to the falcons, at least eight species of Caracaras occur across the New World Tropic and South Temperate Zones, the name “caracara” itself deriving from a Guarani Indian (of Paraguay) rendition of a call. Our Crested Caracara was formerly considered endemic as far south as Tierra del Fuego, but a former subspecies occurring south of the Amazon has recently been accorded full species status as the Southern Caracara (C. plancus).

Preferring open country, the Crested Caracara is an opportunistic feeder, at different times taking carrion, insects, and small vertebrate prey. They have even been observed wading in shallow water, peering under the leaves of emergent vegetation. Piracy is another common feeding tactic, practiced at times on birds as large as Red-tailed Hawks. I recently observed a Caracara fly up high to intercept a passing Cattle Egret, eventually driving it out of the sky after a series of spectacular aerobatics well beyond the norm for either species. Presumably piracy was the intent, the outcome being lost behind intervening trees. Caracaras are even known to harass vultures in this manner, causing them to disgorge their putrid meals.

Caracaras in the wild are both sedentary and long-lived, the birds learning to exploit the varied food resources within their large territories. Although the killing efficiency of their legs and feet seems compromised to accommodate walking, Caracaras have been observed taking prey up to the size of small prairie dogs. Mice and lizard-sized items are more usual, generally captured by means of walking and running on the ground. I did once see a Caracara flying away from a blackbird roost carrying a struggling cowbird in its talons. Food items may be carried in the bill or in their feet. They have been observed systematically tearing strips of flesh from road kills and laying them aside before gathering them up with their beak upon departure. Alternatively, they may scratch on the ground like chickens, seeking to uncover beetles and other large insects.

Pairs mate for life, the sexes being more nearly identical in size than most raptors. The bulky nest of twigs is usually built in a small tree and may be reused and added to for many years, eventually growing to considerable size. Clutch sizes are small, two or three eggs being the norm. The young enjoy an extended period of parental care, remaining about the nest for more than six weeks, the family group remaining together for another three months after fledging.

Despite such care, the survival rate of young Caracaras is relatively low. Losses of broods to fire ants have been observed in Texas. Many newly independent young also perish along highways when seeking carrion. A second peak of mortality occurs at about one year of age at the onset of the next breeding cycle when the young birds are forcibly driven from their parents’ territory.

Within the United States, Crested Caracaras range from southern Arizona east across the southern half of Texas to Louisiana, with a small population occurring in Florida. Historically, the species may have extended its range in some areas with the spread of agriculture. In other localities, especially in Florida, population declines have occurred in response to the loss of open country to development or citrus orchards.

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