The distinctive Crested Caracara “combines the raptorial instincts of the eagle with the base carrion-feeding habits of the vulture” (Hudson 1920). Called ignoble, miserable, and aggressive, yet also dashing, stately, and noble, this medium-sized raptor, with its bold black-and-white plumage and bright yellow-orange face and legs, is easily recognizable as it perches conspicuously on a high point in the landscape. In flight it can be distinguished by its regular, powerful wing beats as it cruises low across the ground or just above the treetops. Known locally in some areas as the “Mexican buzzard”, the Crested Caracara is an opportunist and is commonly seen walking about open fields, pastures, and road edges, feeding on a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate prey, as well as on carrion, often in the company of other avian scavengers. The name “caracara” is said to be of Guarani Indian origin, traro-traro, derived from the unusual rattling vocalization that the bird utters when agitated.
Also known as quebrantahuesos, totache (Mexico), caracara commún (French), carancho, caraira, quelele, traro (Spanish).
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. Adult pairs are generally monogamous and highly territorial and exhibit strong site fidelity. Young remain with their parents for several months after fledging, and at some sites, two broods are raised per year. Non-breeding caracaras are consistently gregarious and nomadic, often congregating in groups, roosting communally, and regularly feeding with vultures.
While the Crested Caracara ranges from northern Mexico to Tierra del Fuego (Figure 1), in the United States it occurs only along the southern border, primarily in Texas and Arizona and occasionally in coastal areas of other Gulf states, and in Florida, where there is an isolated population in the south-central peninsula. This species was first described in the United States in 1831 by John James Audubon, who collected a specimen near St. Augustine, Florida (Audubon 1840d).
Three biological species of caracaras are currently recognized: the insular Guadalupe Caracara (Caracara lutosus), now extinct, and two extant continental species: Crested Caracara (C. cheriway), which is found in the southern United States, parts of Mexico and Central America, northern South America, and Cuba, and the Southern Caracara (C. plancus), found in eastern and southern South America. Neither extant species shows subspecific variation (Dove and Banks 1999).
Although populations in Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Baja California, Mexico, have received recent attention, the Crested Caracara is relatively little studied throughout its range. Rapid urban and agricultural development in Florida has resulted in loss of nesting habitat, and in 1987 this population was classified as Threatened by both the federal government and the state of Florida. In parts of Texas and South America, expansion of the poultry industry, land-clearing, and habitat conversion to ranching and agriculture may be benefiting the species. In some regions, direct human persecution continues, primarily via shooting and poisoning, mostly because of negative attitudes towards scavengers.