Ask TWL: The Crested Caracara

This photo was submitted by a TWL reader who said “It landed on the road right in front of me and then was flying around and gliding in the wind. What is it? Is it like a vulture?”


Meet the Northern Crested Caracara

Order: Falconiformes, Family: Falconidae, Species: Caracara cheriway

The Northern Crested Caracara is a medium-sized raptor, smaller than a goose, but bigger than other birds in the Falcon family like the Peregrine Falcon.

The envy of the Bald Eagle, the Crested Caracara is, well, crested—which is sort of a way of describing a bird faux-hawk (pun-intended). However in the case of the Caracara it looks more like a slicked-back greaser hairdo or a business in the front, party in the back bird mullet.

Caracara’s appear to be fairly stocky, though it’s mostly just a black and white feathery facade. They have long yellow legs and a bare yellow face with a large, sharp-tipped beak typical of a raptor and resembling those of a vulture. When in flight, they reveal largely white underfeathers, especially along their outer flight feathers and tail.


The behavior observed by our reader is pretty typical of what you may see a Crested Caracara doing. They fly much in the way that a Bald Eagle does, first with a few strong wing beats followed by an easy-breezy glide, but usually not far off the ground. As our reader noted, they do look very similar to vultures and in fact they are quite similar in behavior too. Caracara’s are primarily carnivorous scavengers eating dead thins, or carrion. One thing that makes them unique is they do most of their hunting on foot, unlike vultures, which means they often beat their competition to a fresh, err—maybe not so fresh—meal. When they do eat living food, it is usually not long lived, or having much time left. Caracara’s will prey upon young animals such as baby birds, turtles, lizards, and snakes, or other small injured or dying mammals, amphibians or other sorts.


The Crested Caracara primarily inhabits open areas, perched at a scouting station such as a tree, fence, or other structure. Some favorites are pastures, deserts, dry fields, and really anything with an open view. Though they primarily live in Central and South America, they do also make themselves comfortable in Cuba, Florida, Texas, and part of California


That’s all for the Crested Caracara today. If you’d like to see and hear one of these wonderful weirdos in action, check out the video below!

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