The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Crested Caracara is a South Texas Specialty
by Ro Wauer

On returning to South Texas from a two-week trip to Arizona, Utah and Colorado, seeing crested caracaras again was a real pleasure. Although those other states offer the birder a good variety of raptors, including some really remarkable hawks and falcons, none have that special appeal as our very own caracara. And this time of year, adults as well as youngsters can usually be found with little effort. In fact, family groups, two adults and two or three youngsters, are now cavorting along our roadsides and over our pastures and brushlands. The adults undoubtedly are busy teaching their youngsters the art of caracara-predation and which of the abundant roadkills and other carrion to feed upon.

The caracara, best known as crested caracara, due to their low crest, is a large bird - hawk sized - that sports contrasting plumage: black back and cap, with contrasting white cheeks, throat, tail, and noticeable wing-patches in flight; a streaked or barred breast; and a yellow face and long yellowish legs. It has a loud call when disturbed, a grating "trak-trak-trak," like a stick drown rapidly across a wooden washboard, or a bird clearing its throat.

Although ornithologists generally agree that the caracara is a true falcon, it is far more adaptable than most other falcons. It is known to nest on trees, on giant cacti in the Sonoran Desert, on cliffs, and in South Texas on yuccas, large shrubs, and in oak mottes. However, there is no better example of its adaptability than its feeding habits. One time it may be seen perched on a dead cow or deer carcass, feeding with vultures along the roadsides, while the next time it may be found attacking prey from the air, falconlike. In addition, it also is able to run on the open ground, chasing down lizards, snakes, and small rodents.

Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life History series, lists the following foods: rabbits, skunks, prairie dogs, opossums, rats, mice, crayfish, fish, young birds, beetles, grasshoppers, maggots, and worms. Bent also points out that in Texas, caracaras will also harass larger birds that are carrying food; when the food is finally dropped, they will scoop it off the ground or from the water for themselves. An inland pirate of the finest sort!

To many Texans, caracaras are better known as "Mexican eagle" or "Mexican buzzard," but those names are very misleading, as it is neither an eagle nor a buzzard. The caracara also is sometimes thought to be Mexico's national bird that is depicted on its colorful flag. But that bird, sitting on a cactus with a snake in its talons, is actually a golden eagle, not a caracara.

Caracaras, in spite of not looking or acting much like other falcons, are most closely related to peregrine and prairie falcons and kestrels. And their name was derived from the Guarani Indians who named it for the caracara's infrequent "cara-cara" calls. What other bird is so adaptable in its feeding habits and has such a remarkable personality as our crested caracara?

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