Crested Caracaras in South-central Florida

Crested Caracaras are members of the family Falconidae (which includes other species like Kestrels, Merlins and Hobbies, and the Peregrine Falcon). Recently, through genetic work, it was discovered that Falconidae is more closely related to parrots than other raptors. There are 11 known species of caracara, one of which is extinct. Crested Caracara is the only one found in the United States.

adult Crested Caracara (note black plumage and bright white head feathers, in addition to bright yellow legs)

Caracara’s are named for the sound they make when they throw their head back in a “rattle” call. They are well known as Mexican Vultures or Mexican Eagles, and are found on the official seal of Mexico (with a snake in their talons). Caracaras eat carrion and also live prey, and aren’t above snatching prey from other species. I’ve seen them snatch prey from Cattle Egrets and Wood Storks, and have also seen disputes (likely territorial) between caracaras and Great Blue Herons, Osprey, Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Bald Eagles.

Caracaras have very large territories. In Florida, this territory is usually centered around clumps of cabbage palm on cattle ranches, and also wetlands (which are important habitats for they prey species, like frogs and lizards). Crested Caracaras nest mostly in Cabbage Palm, but have been known to nest in other tree species.

Population numbers of Crested Caracaras in Florida have been dropping in the last hundred years, mainly as a result of habitat destruction (combined with development pressure and road-kills). When ranch lands are converted to housing developments, factory sites, or large-scale agriculture, the Cabbage Palms that Caracaras depend on are cut, and pairs are displaced off their breeding territories. Pairs do seem to mate for life, and once a territory is established, the pair will likely remain on it for the rest of their lives. A 16 year old caracara was recently recovered as a road kill, and it had moved only 9 km from where it was banded as a sub adult.

You may see caracaras on the edge of cities or developments. My guess is that these are birds that have been displaced by development elsewhere, or they are birds that are attempting to hold out on their historic territories until the habitat can no longer meet their needs. Caracaras may actually appear to benefit initially from construction; they are attracted to recently burned areas, recently cleared ditches, and recently cleared brush piles, where they are likely to find a large concentration of lizards, frogs and bugs to eat. But these benefits are only temporary; if the Cabbage Palms that they depend on are taken out, the birds will likely abandon their territories in search of more suitable habitat.

The project I am working on seeks to find out specifically how breeding pairs of Crested Caracara react to large-scale development on and near their territories. Many of our focal pairs nesting areas are not directly on proposed project sites, but are on the edge of these lands. Because caracaras have such large territories, which do overlap on these project sites, one can hypothesize that home range will either shift or shrink, depending on suitability of surrounding lands. If caracaras are particularly sensitive to a certain type of development (that is, if their Cabbage Palms/nesting trees are cut and/or their foraging/roosting areas are destroyed or decreased to some level), it is likely they will move on, to “greener pastures.” Unfortunately for a caracara, greener pastures are few and far between in Florida. And, if they do find such an ideal land (cattle ranch), they most likely won’t be welcomed with the label of an endangered species.

While there are laws and regulations that govern the extent of development allowed, I can only hope that private landowners can continually recognize the importance of this species, and work towards common goals of land preservation and stewardship. For a species with such a small range in Florida, a displaced caracara has only so many places it can retreat to.

The following is a collection of photos of Crested Caracaras in juvenile plumage, and one in sub adult plumage.  Notice the streaked pattern on the neck and breast of juveniles, as opposed to the barred pattern on sub adults and adults.  Also note the overall brown plumage, “bulging” eyes, and pale grey legs. Alex wrote a good summary post on how to age Caracaras while he was visiting, which you can find at this link Nemesis Bird

juvenile CRCA
Sub adult CRCA
juvenile CRCA
juvenile CRCA
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