Crested Caracara, Caracara plancus: The Crested Caracara is medium sized raptor that is a mix between an eagle and a vulture and a member of the Falconidae or Falcon Family. This bird species is primarily a ground-inhabiting falcon of the open prairies, with long legs that enable it to walk and run with ease. It is the national bird of Mexico and is used as the national emblem. The Crested Caracara is the subject of much folklore due to a reported fearlessness of humans. It is also believed that the male offspring of a male caracara and a female chicken are fierce fighters and almost invincible in cock fights.
The Crested Caracara has a hawk-like appearance with long legs and rounded wings. It is a large bird that can weight up to 3 pounds, with body lengths of 20 to 22 inches and wingspans of up to 48 inches. Adults are dark brown with flattened heads with a prominent black cap (the key to a correct identification) and a bare yellow to reddish face. The throat, neck, and base of the tail are white. The tip of the tail has a wide terminal black band. The legs are long with the upper portions being feathered; the lower legs and toes are yellow and the claws are black. The bill is pale blue. In flight a large white patch at the end of the wings is highly visible.
The juveniles have the same markings as the adults but are not as darkly colored. Females are slightly larger than the males but the sexes cannot be differentiated by color.
The Crested Caracara is an opportunistic scavenger, with the most varied diet of any bird of prey, which includes carrion, small animals, invertebrates, and live or dead fish. It often accompanies and dominates vultures at sites of fresh kills of carrion.
It forms year-round pairs that build nests or refurbishe old nests together during the winter months. The nests are elevated in trees or structures between 5 and 50 feet off the ground with good views. The females lay an average of 2 or 3 eggs which are incubated by both sexes for 30 to 34 days. During this period the adults are extremely aggressive and highly territorial. The young are pinkish and remain in the nest for the first 60 days begging for the food provided by their parents. The chicks feed on non-regurgitated carrion, invertebrates, and small fishes. They leave the nest in 7 to 8 weeks but during the first week are unable to sustain flight. They continue to be fed by the parents for an additional two months. The family remains intact for up to one full year.
This is a non-migratory species, found from sea level to altitudes of 4,500 feet, in the lower Baja California peninsula in Mexico, along all coastal waters of the Mexican mainland, and in the interior of the southerly half of mainland Mexico. It is very common in the cape area of the Baja peninsula.
The Crested Caracara is normally observed on the ground at kill sites but can also been seen cruising at tree top level. The average lifespan of the Crested Caracara is 9 years in the wild and 15 years in captivity. It experiences high mortalities in the first year of life due to nests being destroyed by wind or chicks falling out of the nests. Also, the larger birds are prone to consumption by humans. The actual number of birds is unknown but extremely limited and believed to be significantly declining over the last 10 years due to loss of habitat. The Crested Caracara is considered to be an endangered species and is currently protected by the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Endangered Species Act.