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AUDUBON'S CRESTED CARACARA (Polyborus plancus audubonii)

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Audubon's crested caracara picture
Family: Falconidae

Order: Falconiformes

STATUS: Threatened

DESCRIPTION: The caracara is a large, boldly patterned falcon with a crest, naked face, heavy bill, elongate neck, and unusually long legs. It stands about 56 centimeters in height and has a wingspan of 1.2 meters. The adult is dark brownish black on the crown, wings, lower back, and upper abdomen. The lower part of the head, throat, and lower abdomen are white. The upper back, breast, and the tail coverts are whitish and heavily barred with black. Juveniles have a similar color pattern but are brownish and buffy with the breast and upper back streaked instead of barred. Adults have reddish-orange facial skin and yellow legs, whereas, juveniles have pinkish facial skin and gray legs. Their call, "caracara" from which they take their name, is usually accompanied by a conspicuous backward motion of the head and neck. Caracaras form a small, aberrant group related to typical falcons but resembling vultures in some of their characteristics and habits.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: The caracara is a bird of open country. Dry prairies with scattered cabbage palms are areas which constitute the typical habitat, although it also occurs in improved pasture lands and even in relatively wooded areas with more limited stretches of open grasslands. The caracara is found in Florida, southern portions of Texas and Arizona, and south to southern South America. In Florida, the caracara is largely restricted to the prairie areas of the south-central peninsular region, although it has been recorded as far south in the state as Monroe County and as far north as Nassau County. The Audubon's Caracara in Florida has undergone a slow, long-term decline in abundance. The present population in Florida probably numbers no more than 300 birds. The caracara is the only North American representative of the group, and the Florida population is of particular interest because of its extreme isolation from the main portion of the species' range.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The caracara usually perches on a fence post, dead tree, mound of earth, or other exposed place. It is primarily a ground-inhabiting falcon; its long legs enable it to walk and run with ease. It is an opportunistic feeder, eating carrion, capturing live prey, and harassing vultures until they disgorge their meals. The diet includes insects, reptiles (especially turtles), fish, birds, and small mammals. Nests are constructed of sticks, vines, and grasses, and almost always built in cabbage palms. Breeding occurs from January through

March; usually 2 or 3 eggs are laid per clutch. Incubation is about 30 days, and the young fledge at about 8 weeks of age.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: The increasing loss of prairie habitat due to urban developments, citrus groves, improved pastures, and other agricultural uses has probably been a major factor accounting for the decline of this species in Florida. Increased numbers of roads and traffic, coupled with the caracara's preference for feeding on road-killed animals, has probably been another factor contributing to increased mortality. In order to protect the crested caracara from further decline, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission classified the caracara as a "threatened" species in 1974. Despite protection by state and federal laws, caracaras are killed in the belief that they are serious predators on newborn calves or because their large size and conspicuousness makes them a tempting target. Large numbers of caracaras were apparently destroyed in vulture trapping operations in earlier years, and some are probably still taken in illegal vulture traps.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: The Audubon's crested caracara is a bird of open, dry country. Dry prairies with scattered cabbage palms constitute the typical habitat, although it also occurs in improved pasture lands and even in relatively wooded areas with more limited stretches of open grasslands. Property owners and land managers should be encouraged to retain as much as possible in native grasslands and to preserve wetter areas, perching sites, and suitable cabbage palm stands for nesting, especially when converting areas to improved pasture.

RECOMMENDATIONS: The survival of the caracara in Florida depends upon preservation of extensive tracts of suitable habitat. Most of such lands still remaining are in large ranches. Economic, governmental land-use policies, or other measures that will favor continuation of this land use will benefit the caracara population. In addition, through appropriate regulations, financial inducements, or other means, owners of such lands should be encouraged to retain as much as possible in native grasslands and to preserve wetter areas, perching sites, and suitable cabbage palm stands for nesting, especially when converting areas to improved pasture. There are presently no federal or state-owned prairie lands supporting a significant population of caracaras. High priority should be given to acquiring such areas as parks or natural reserves both for their intrinsic value as well as caracara sanctuaries. Stricter enforcement of present laws protecting Caracaras should be required. In addition, an educational program should be instituted to inform ranchers, hunters, and other people living in areas where caracaras occur, of the value of this spectacular Florida wildlife species and the importance of preserving it.

REFERENCES:
Layne, J.N. 1996. Crested Caracara Pp. 197-210. In Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida,

Volume V. Birds (J.A. Rodgers, Jr., H.W. Kale II, and H.T. Smith, eds.).

University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

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