Northern caracara, Northern Crested caracara, Audubon's caracara, Mexican eagle, Mexican buzzard
The Crested caracara (Caracara plancus), previously called Audubon's caracara, is a bird of prey in the family Falconidae. Though in the same family as the typical falcons, it is very different both in shape and habits. The name "Caracara" is based on the call of the bird and is from a South American Indian word.
The cap, belly, thighs, most of the wings, and tail tip of the Crested caracara are dark brownish, the auriculars (feathers surrounding the ear), throat, and nape are whitish-buff, and the chest, neck, mantle, back, upper tail coverts, crissum (the undertail coverts surrounding the cloaca), and basal part of the tail are whitish-buff barred dark brownish. In flight, the outer primaries show a large conspicuous whitish-buff patch ('window'), as in several other species of caracaras. The legs are yellow and the bare facial skin and cere are deep yellow to reddish-orange. Juveniles resemble adults, but are paler, with streaking on the chest, neck, and back, grey legs, and whitish, later pinkish-purple, facial skin and cere.
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. These birds avoid the Andean highlands and dense humid forests, such as the Amazon rainforest, where they are largely restricted to relatively open sections along major rivers. They prefer open areas, with some trees but scarce vegetation, like grasslands, shrubland, pastures, and river edges. They are sometimes found in marshes and visit cultivated areas.
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. While usually quiet, Crested caracaras have a distinctive social vocalization, described as a rattle. This cackling, rattling sound is made while the Crested caracara throws its head back. This is known as the head-throwback display.
Crested caracaras are monogamous, and mate 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 after fledging.
Though the number 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.
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 is 2 million individuals. Overall, currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, and its numbers today are increasing.