The Northern caracara or Crested caracara, previously called Audubon's caracara, is a bird of prey that belongs to the family Falconidae. Though in the same family as the typical falcons, it is very different both in shape and habits. Crested caracara are strikingly patterned, broad-winged opportunists that often feed on carrion. Common in the American tropics, in the United States it is found only in Florida and near the Mexican border. "Caracara" is based on the call of the bird and is from a South American Indian word.
Crested caracaras inhabit the Mexican - American border, ranging from Baja California to Eastern Texas, and south to Panama. In Cuba there are isolated populations, also in the Isle of Pines, Central Florida and Louisiana. They prefer dry open areas, with some trees but scarce vegetation, like savannahs, pastures and river edges. They are sometimes found in forests and marshes.
This species is an opportunist feeder as well as commonly stealing the food of other birds, including harassing species as large as vultures and Red-tailed hawks, causing them to disgorge their food. They begin to hunt early in the morning, before vultures, spending much time down on the ground, walking placidly on their long legs in open lands. These birds exploit varied food resources within their large territory and may scratch the ground to dislodge insects, catch prey while walking or running along the ground, and carry food in their bill or with their feet. This species is diurnal. They are resident in their range, traveling according to food availability. Usually solitary, these birds may often be seen in pairs, or a group of 3 to 4. Gathering in flocks to feed, they may number up to 60 individuals.
This species is monogamous, and mates for life. Being very territorial, they defend their nest site, to which they return year after year, making harsh, grating calls, hovering above the site or sitting on the nest. During the breeding season, the male may fight while flying, with his head thrown back onto his shoulders, making cackling cries. A pair nests alone. A nest is located in a solitary tree, surrounded by low vegetation or shrubs. It can be built on the ground within pampas, and sometimes on islands in marshes, and under rocks in deserts. The nest is cup-shaped, made from woven sticks, up to one meter in diameter, and up to 40 cm high. Every year more materials are added. 2 to 3 brown eggs are laid, from November to February. The incubation period is about 28 to 32 days, and shared by both parents. For 8 to 12 weeks the young remain in the nest, and a family remains together for 3 months post fledging.
Though the numbers of Crested caracara in the US is still relatively stable, in Florida these birds are considered threatened, due to loss of habitat, particularly as a result of development and the spread of citrus orchards. While caracaras are moving to deforested areas within their range, they are still faced with many threats. Loss of habitat, human persecution, collisions with cars and poisoning are among the factors that may threaten them in the future.
This bird has an extremely large range. According to the What Bird resource, the total number of the Crested caracara is around 100,000-1,000,000 individuals. According to the All About Birds resource, the breeding population size totals 2 million birds, with 5% in the United States, and 28% in Mexico. Overall, currently Crested caracaras are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are increasing.