As the sun rises over the prairie, Turkey Vultures begin to soar over their roost, awoken by the stench of rotting flesh drifting by on the morning breeze. They quickly find the source of the stench – a dead hog – and plummet to the ground to enjoy what will be a communal breakfast. Black Vultures spot their close relatives’ descent and fly over to join them in a dawn feast. The breakfast gathering is anything but amicable; the vultures squabble and bicker, disturbing the morning peace! The noise carries to a nearby hammock and attracts the attention of a dozing Crested Caracara perched in a cabbage palm. He stretches his wings and takes to the air, covering the ground between his roost and the breakfast melee in no time at all. Once on the ground, the caracara walks boldly among the vultures, scattering them in all directions. The male caracara tears off a large chunk of flesh from the carcass and begins to dine. The vultures mistakenly creep back toward the dead hog, but the caracara is not interested in sharing and a fight breaks out.
The male caracara wins and the disgruntled vultures are forced to stand back and wait their turn. Eventually, his appetite satisfied, the caracara takes to the air and lands upon his favorite perch, an old fencepost alongside a dusty road in Osceola County.
|Crested Caracara by Karla Brandt|
Identification & behavior
The Crested Caracara is not a difficult bird to identify if you get a good look at one. The dark cap and body contrast with a pale face and neck, giving it a distinctive bi-colored appearance when perched – even at a distance. Its large hooked bill is two-thirds orange and one-third gray for mature birds, while juveniles have a mostly gray bill for much of their first year. In flight, caracaras exhibit five distinct pale areas of plumage: a patch on each outer wing, one on its head and one on both sides of its tail. The birds hold their wings flat when gliding, and their wing beats are shallow and stiff. Caracaras are aggressive; they have to be. Unlike the Turkey Vulture, they do not possess the ability to smell carrion – their preferred source of food – so they often arrive late at a feed. Aggressive behavior is therefore necessary to ensure they get an ample share of the available food before it disappears into the bellies of other species. Most of their day is spent perched in trees or on man-made structures, such as fence posts and telephone poles. If the need or opportunity arises they will often hunt for live prey: mostly easy to catch insects such as crickets and beetles, or reptiles, such as snakes and lizards.
Breeding & distribution
In Florida, their loosely constructed nest is almost always built in the tops of cabbage palms, and the female typically lays one to four eggs. Incubation lasts for four weeks, and the young caracaras fledge four to eight weeks later. The Florida population is estimated to be as few as 400 birds. At one time, caracaras were common in the prairies of central Florida, but their numbers declined as favored habitat was converted to housing developments, citrus groves and improved pastures. Today, both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list the caracara as Threatened. They are most abundant in a six-county area north and west of Lake Okeechobee (DeSoto, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Okeechobee and Osceola counties). Their stronghold is privately held ranch land, and biologists are working with landowners to better understand the needs of this enigmatic raptor.
Where do I find them?
Crested Caracaras can be found at several birding trail sites.
All of the above sites can be found on our website. www.floirdabirdingtrail.com