Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Undertaker – The Crested Caracara

Originally published on Audubon Guides on October 14th, 2012
Throughout Florida’s rural landscape, thousands of miles of asphalt scars bisect pasturelands and create obstacles for every species of wildlife including rodents, frogs, owls, pigs, bears, panthers and so many more. A desolate wilderness is not a promise of safe harbor and the roadsides are often littered with carcasses of the quick…and yet dead.

A ghoulish gaggle of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures often accompanies the funeral service, completing the deceased’s transition from life to death. Vultures feed primarily on carrion, although Black Vultures will assist in dispatching creatures still clinging to life. With weak talons and slow flight, they are ill equipped to chase and kill anything with much more spirit.
Crested Caracara and Turkey Vulture © Pete Corradino
In south central Florida, one of the rarest birds in the state can be seen in pairs, crowding a flock of vultures and dominating a carcass. The Crested Caracara, also found in Texas and Arizona is endangered in Florida in part due to increased agriculture lands. The roads that bring the roadkill also put the caracaras at risk of becoming roadkill themselves.

While the Crested Caracara is sometimes referred to as a Mexican Eagle, it is a member of the Falcon family, albeit in the much slower genus Caracara. The long-legged, sharp-beaked bird of prey is capable of chasing down its quarry and spends much of its time hunting on the ground. They are opportunistic and will feed on reptiles, small mammals and invertebrates but the preference in the prairielands is easy game, aka dead stuff.

The Crested Caracara is distinctly different in appearance from its undertaker associates. They look like a small Bald Eagle with a toupee. Their white neck and flight feathers against a body of brown set them apart from the mostly black vultures. Caracaras also have a stout orange beak with a blue tip. I often see them perched on fence posts, snags or in Slash Pines when not feeding on roadkill. The kill sites are always dynamic with an obvious pecking order among vultures and caracaras. Regardless of the number of vultures, a pair of caracaras will always dominate. It helps to be a Falcon and makes the job that much easier of an undertaking.

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