Crested Caracaras live in the Piney Woods now

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Crested Caracaras, oddballs of the falcon family, have moved with coimate change into spaaces beyond their historical range.
Crested Caracaras are raptors commonly associated with arid, open areas in the southwest. Hard to miss, these large raptors have black crests and bodies highlighted by white upper breasts and necks, white patches at the ends of their rounded wings, and white tails with broad black terminal bands. Their faces have bare reddish-orange skin. Wing span is four feet. These birds stand tall on long yellow legs and are very agile on the ground.

Believe it or not, Crested Caracaras are the odd balls of the falcon family whose other members have long, pointed wings and fly with great speed and agility chasing their living prey. A close examination of caracaras suggests similarities to vultures rather than falcons. In fact, much of the caracaras' diet consists of carrion, especially road kills. They will patrol highways in early morning before vultures take wing searching for breakfast. And, they won't hesitate to chase larger vultures away from a tasty roadside treat. However, they actively hunt, catch and eat small mammals, birds, snakes, lizards, fish, turtles, and large insects and crustaceans.

Crested Caracaras were once restricted in northerly distribution to southern Texas. In the USA, they also occurred across the Gulf of Mexico in central and lower Florida. Now, their range is extending northward in Texas and and eastward into Louisiana. Birders in Louisiana used to have to go to extreme southwest Cameron Parish to find these striking birds of prey but they are now commonly observed north of I-10 in Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes. In fact, I recently located a pair in a working wetland complex in St. Landry Parish just southeast of Eunice extending the known range well into south-central Louisiana.

So what are Crested Caracaras doing outside of their historical range? The best explanation is climate change which accounts for the movement of other birds into the region with more numerous species like White-winged and Inca doves. Now, just because I recognize climate change based on extension of bird ranges doesn't mean that I believe that the cause is human generated "global warming"!

Young Crested Caracaras resemble their parents but the overall color is brown not black. Three to four eggs are laid. Often a family group of parents and young are found together. Large congregations can occur. I once saw over 50 caracaras gathered in a large pasture in the piney woods east of Bastrop, Texas!

Although caracaras are birds associated with arid regions, they will not hesitate to walk about in shallow water. I once found three young caracaras in a flooded, plowed field just north of the Jefferson Davis Parish landfill. The field was occupied by several thousand Laughing Gulls that had apparently brought some landfill garbage there. I watched as a Great Egret found a large piece "meat" and managed to gobble it down with a young caracara close to its side! An adult caracara might have pirated the "juicy" piece of food, a common behavior pattern - stealing food from other birds called kleptoparasitism.

The Crested Caracara is sometimes called a "Mexican Eagle". Mexico's national bird is the Golden Eagle. However, several pre-Columbian Aztec codicies depict a large raptor that many believe was a Crested Caracara. Some experts insist that the original "eagle" on the first Mexican flag was a Crested Caracara!