Aging Crested Caracaras

Alex LamoreauxIdentification, Science7 Comments

I am fascinated by birds of prey. They are by far, my favorite group of birds and whenever I am hawk-watching or out birding and see raptors, I really like to try to age and sex the individual birds I see, whenever possible. When I was down in Florida last week, I was fortunate enough to see one of North America’s most beautiful raptors, the Crested Caracara. My girlfriend Anna and I would go out everyday searching for nesting caracaras as part of a project she is working on in Florida. This offered me the chance to see lots of Crested Caracaras, up close and personal.

Sub-adult Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras cannot be sexed in the field. Like most raptors, the male is slightly smaller than the female, but in the Crested Caracara, the size difference is not noticeable enough to be reliable, even when a male and female are sitting next to each other. However, Crested Caracaras can be very easily aged. Crested Caracaras are very social and can often be found in rather large congregations, so that makes it a little easier to see the difference between the ages when you are out caracara-watching.

There are 3 phases that Crested Caracaras go through as they get older. Their first plumage type is known as the “juvenile” plumage, which they show from the time they leave the nest, till they they are one year old. The second plumage type is known as the “sub-adult” (or Basic I) plumage. This is shown on a bird that is in its second year of life. Finally, when the bird is three years old, it attains its “adult” plumage. Below are some photos I took of Crested Caracaras in each of their plumage types and an explanation of how to tell their ages in the field.

The first photos show a juvenile caracara. Notice that the darker parts of the bird are overall a brownish coloration. The lighter areas on the neck/face and undertail coverts are a buffy, dirty looking coloration. Also note, the bird’s legs are grayish in color. Furthermore, notice that the buffy coloration on the neck fades into the brown coloration on its breast, with quite a bit of buffy feathers throughout the breast – overall giving an appearance of vertical streaking. This streaking is also shown down the back of the caracara. Finally, the coloration of the skin on a juvenile bird’s face is pale pink or gray (depending on the bird’s mood).

Juvenile Crested Caracara

Juvenile Crested Caracara

The next set of photos show sub-adult caracaras. This phase of the birds continues to show the chocolate-brown coloration in the darker parts of the body and the buffy, dirty looking in the lighter areas. However, notice how the area where the buffy neck color meets the darker breast. In a sub-adult bird, this area shows horizontal barring rather than vertical streaking like you would see on a juvenile. This barring is also shown on the back of the bird, as shown in the second photo. Also, the facial skin is a much richer pink color and the legs and feet are a bright yellow. NOTE – the bird in the first photo is showing an extended crop (yellow sack on throat) because it has recently eaten.

Sub-adult Crested Caracara

Sub-adult Crested Caracara

Sub-adult Crested Caracara

These next photos show adult caracaras. The most obvious difference right off the bat is that these birds are no longer chocolate-brown, but instead very dark black. The lighter areas are crisp and clean white in color. The horizontal barring on the breast is similar to the sub-adult. The facial skin is a bright reddish-orange coloration (although it can change a bit with the bird’s mood) and the legs and feet are a bright yellow (almost orange) color.

Adult Crested Caracara

Adult Crested Caracara

These next photos show some photos of different ages alongside each other. The first photo shows an adult flying alongside a juvenile. The adult is on the bottom and the juvenile is on the top. Note the vertical streaking on the breast of the juvenile and the chocolate-brown color, the pink facial color, and the gray legs. In the adult, notice the black coloration, horizontal barring on the breast, the yellow legs, and the orange facial skin. NOTE – the adult is showing an extended crop (the yellow sack on its throat) because this bird had just finished eating.

Juvenile (top) and Adult Crested Caracara

This last photo shows a sub-adult and a juvenile perched together in a tree. The sub-adult bird is at the top and shows the horizontal barring on its breast. The juvenile bird, on the bottom, shows the vertical streaking. The leg color of these ages is different, but this photo was shot in a poorly lit condition (overcast and raining) so you can’t see the gray vs yellow color difference well.

Juvenile (bottom) and Sub-adult Crested Caracara

Hopefully this post was informative and will help you age Crested Caracaras whenever you might be down in Texas or Florida birding. All these photos are copyrighted by Alex Lamoreaux and cannot be used without written permission. To view more photos I took of Crested Caracaras, visit this link.

  • Nikkikraft0817

    thanks for the lesson on these amazing birds. i’ve had the pleasure of living in florida for over 20 years and finally saw my first caracara last year! your pictures are amazing!

  • Wonderful photos!

  • Javie

    Excellent summary on field aging caracaras. Great job of supporting the observations with clear photographs. Much appreciated.

  • Annette

    can you tell me what kind of bird is Real Large (I thought it was an owl when it came gliding out!) light brown in color with a Bright orange beak w/yellow. 2 crows were trying to attack it as it flew over and around my house..Thought it was some kind of Vulture but it has a totally feathered head.. about 3 days ago i was driving home and saw the same type bird on the ground on the side of the road eating something. The beak is very distinctive! I cant find any info anywhere.
    I saw a beautiful red tail hawk the other day also.. It flew across in front of me.. I tend to see alot of hawks. I was told they are one of my totems.. they are the messenger.. I cant even tell you how many I saw last year and Deer.. We saw them almost daily in all different places.. Thanks Annette

    • Hi Annette, without knowing which part of the country you are in, its a bit hard to guess what you saw. Give us some more clues and I’ll try to figure it out with you.

  • kb

    This was very interesting and informative, as I was wondering about the photo I took this morning. Thank you for this! This was an unusual and interesting tidbit you mentioned also…hmm…”Finally, the coloration of the skin on a juvenile bird’s face is pale pink or gray (depending on the bird’s mood).”