Crested Caracaras look loke hawks, behaves like vultures, but are technically a large tropical falcon. They are easy to spot and are easily recognizable birds.
The Crested Caracara is a medium-sized, bulky raptor with long legs. Its flat head is topped with a shaggy crest. In flight, its long, straight wings and diamond-shaped tail are evident. The bill is heavy with a sharp tip. Crested Caracaras are black and white with yellow-orange legs and yellow-orange skin around the bill. Their black cap contrasts strongly with their white neck and cheeks. In flight the undertail and outer flight feathers are white. Juveniles are brown and white and lack the adult's yellow-orange legs and facial skin.
Crested Caracaras are larger than a Peregrine Falcon but smaller than a Turkey Vulture. They have a length of 19.3-22.8 inches (49-58 centimeters), a weight of 37.0-45.9 ounces (1,050-1,300 grams), and a wingspan of 48.0-49.2 inches (122-125 centimeters).
Crested Caracaras are residents year-round throughout southern U.S, Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. They nest and forage in open areas year-round, from sea level to around 10,000 feet. They tend to avoid areas with thick ground cover as it prevents them from getting a running start to take flight. In some areas, they may concentrate near sources of food.
Though Crested Caracaras are thought to eat primarily carrion they also eat live prey. Crested Caracaras are resourceful foragers and eat just about anything they can find. Crested Caracaras also take advantage of disturbance, grabbing fleeing animals or picking up those that have died. They watch for vultures and often join them to feed on carrion. Because Crested Caracaras cannot open large carcasses on their own they must wait for a vulture or larger animal to open it up. Unlike most raptors that pounce on prey, caracaras generally fly or run on the ground toward their prey until they overtake it.
Crested Caracaras generally build a nest in the tallest structure around. Both males and females collect stems, twigs, and vines that they weave into a bulky nest with a shallow bowl. It takes the pair around 2 to 4 weeks to build a nest. The nests are approximately 2 feet across, but they frequently reuse and refurbish old nests, so they are often larger.
Crested Caracaras have one to two broods with one to four eggs in each. The eggs are cinnamon-colored with heavy brown spotting. They have a length of 2.1-2.7 inches (5.3-6.8 centimeters) and a width of 1.4-2.4 inches (3.5-6 centimeters). Incubation period is 30-33 days and nesting period is 42-56 days. At hatching, the hatchlings are helpless and covered in down.
Crested Caracaras regularly walk or run on the ground. To get airborne they take a few running steps, lifting gently into the air. Once in flight, they fly with strong and slow wingbeats with their wings held flat, scanning for prey below.
They keep territories year-round and are not social with other birds other than their mate during the breeding season. Breeding birds tend to be more aggressive toward other Crested Caracaras and vultures at carcass sites, but seem more tolerant outside the breeding season and even roost communally at times. Pairs form year-round bonds with each other and stay together for several years. Pairs and family groups frequently preen each other, a behavior known as allopreening. They maintain strict territorial boundaries, quickly chasing away intruders from the nest site during the breeding season. They are faithful to the nest site and return to the same site and sometimes the same tree year after year.
Crested Caracaras are mostly silent, but when disturbed, they occasionally throw their heads back, lifting their bills to the sky, and make a hollow rattling that sounds similar to running a stick along a fence. They tend to be more vocal during the breeding season.
Crested Caracaras are common throughout its range and it's populations have had a small increase recently. Human disturbance may be providing beneficial foraging opportunities for them, but they also face the loss and degradation of nesting areas throughout their range.
- The Crestede Caracara is a common subject of folklore and legends throughout Central and South America, and is sometimes called the "Mexican eagle."
- The Crested Caracara is the only falcon that collects material to build a nest.
- The oldest recorded Crested Caracara was at least 21 years and 9 months old when it was identified by its band in 2015 in Florida. It was first banded in the same state in 1994.
- Crested Caracaras are also called Carancho Norteño (in Spanish) and Caracara du Nord (in French).