Nature’s Notebook Audubon’s Crested Caracara
Federally threatened species in Florida
Audubon’s crested caracara ( Caracara plancus audubonii) is the most widespread of the nine caracara species, all of which are neotropical in distribution. Other vernacular names include the black-capped eagle, caracara eagle and Mexican buzzard. It is both a scavenger and a raptor and is closely related to the falcon. This tropical falcon (including two subspecies) is the only caracara found in the United States, primarily in southern Arizona, Texas and Florida. The best chance to observe crested caracara in Florida is along state roads in the state’s south-central ranch country. The subspecies C. p. audubonii is found only in south-central Florida, and its population is estimated at 500. This estimate is conservative as it is based only on road surveys. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a federally threatened species in Florida. This species is found south of Orlando, with its breeding core concentrated in the south-central prairie region near Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River floodplain. This includes Osceola, Okeechobee, Highlands, Hendry, Glades and DeSoto counties. It can also be found in Lee and Collier counties. The adult caracara has a black body, black crest and crown, white head, black-and-white barred neck, pink or yellow facial skin and long yellow legs. The female is slightly larger than the male. Juveniles have a brown body and brown-and-white streaked neck. The facial skin, feet and legs are gray rather than yellow. Juveniles acquire adult plumage at four years of age. In flight all ages show a white tail with a wide, black subterminal band and white wing tips. Historically, caracara nested within the St. Johns River, DeSoto and Kissimmee prairies. With the conversion of native habitat to sugarcane farms, citrus groves and residential development, the crested caracara has adapted to nesting within open pasture with short vegetation including scattered cabbage palm and live oak hammocks. This habitat also includes scattered sloughs and ephemeral wetlands. The crested caracara’s home range is approximately 3,000 acres, or a radius of 1.2-1.9 miles from the nest (though home ranges have been reported to range from 1,500-6,300 acres, or a radius of 2.3 to 9.8 miles from the nest). Its nesting territory is 25 percent of the home-range core. Significant changes in activity levels or habitat near the nest could result in the
breeding pair leaving the nest site even if this occurs during the nonbreeding season. If habitat changes occur over a wide area within the overall home range, the breeding pair might abandon the home range altogether.
Caracara nests are generally placed in single cabbage palms or in groups of three to 10 palms in open pasture or prairie, with an average tree height of 16 feet. Nests are also placed in live oak trees and, rarely, in cypress trees. The caracara is the only falconid that constructs its nest from gathered nesting material, which includes very small sticks, vines, grass and weed stalks. The nest is approximately 2.2 feet wide and 1.1 feet deep. Alternative nesting trees used by a caracara pair are usually within 0.3 mile of each other.
The breeding cycle is approximately 25 weeks long, encompassing nest building, egg laying, incubation, nestling and post-fledging dependency periods. Clutch size is one to three eggs with an average of two eggs. Incubation takes 28 to 32 days. The nestling period lasts seven to eight weeks. Fledging usually happens in March or April. The post-fledging dependency period is generally eight to 12 weeks. Families will remain together for three to six months after fledging. Juveniles explore outside their natal range after three months but return to their home range. Permanent departure from the natal home range can occur from 11 to 45 weeks after fledging. The caracara hunts and kills animals, as well as feeding on carrion. Prey includes: rats, mice, skunks, rabbits, squirrels, piglets, fish, turtles, frogs, sirens, snakes, lizards, birds, bird eggs, crayfish, beetles and grasshoppers. The caracara may be found with vultures and bald eagles feeding on carrion. It patrols roads at twilight for injured animals and roadkill, primarily opossums, armadillos, raccoons, rabbits, turtles and snakes. It also pursues and harasses vultures, crows and other caracaras pirating food (kleptoparasitism). The caracara spends a lot of time on the ground searching for food and wading in shallow water in search of fish, turtles and other aquatic animals.
The best chance to observe crested caracara in Florida is along state roads in the state’s south-central ranch country.
Because of its appearance, the crested caracara is sometimes called a black-capped eagle.
From top: Crested caracara bringing a stick to its nest; a juvenile feeding on a snake.