Photo of the Month: Crested caracara

By Megan Runquist Holmstedt

Crested caracara; PHOTO CREDIT: Jamie Pham

Status: This species (Caracara cheriway) is listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its large range in the Americas. However, this bird’s population has declined in parts of the U.S. due to hunting and habitat loss.

Habitat: The crested caracara ranges from parts of southern Arizona and central Texas through Mexico and Central America and into the northernmost South American countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil. It lives in both wet and dry prairies, open grasslands and woodlands, mesquite brushlands, and can also be found around farmland.

Diet:  As a bird of prey, the caracara is primarily carnivorous and takes advantage of whatever food source presents itself. It often forages for carrion with vultures, but the caracara will also prey on reptiles, small mammals such as rabbits and rodents, small birds and eggs, amphibians, fish, and crayfish.

Though it is in the falcon family, the caracara lacks the pointed wings and relatively short tail that make falcons fast-flying aerial hunters; with rounded wings, a long tail, and long legs, the caracara is more a soaring scavenger in its habits.

Similar to the bateleur eagle, the caracara has a featherless patch of skin on its face that ranges in color from pale yellow to red, depending on the bird’s mood. Though not bald like a vulture, the bare skin on its face serves the same purpose as a featherless head in that it helps keep the caracara’s face and head clean while feeding.

Also known as the Mexican eagle, the crested caracara is the national bird of Mexico and appears on the country’s flag. At the L.A. Zoo, it is on exhibit in the South America section, next to the blue-billed curassow and ocelot.