Bird of the Week: Crested Caracara

By Abby West
Lead Photo by Suzie McCann

Crested caracaras are noticeable– photos of them intermittently pop up in my neighborhood group typically captioned something like, “what is this weird looking bird?” My neighbors aren’t wrong: they look like weird vultures but with flattened heads, sporting their signature black crest (aka fohawk) and donning a toucan-esque beak. In flight they are similar to vultures as well, except that caracaras have steady, powerful wingbeats instead of teetering slowly back and forth. They can easily be spotted perched, flying or walking in or near open pastures.

Here in Texas, Crested caracaras are residents, meaning they don’t migrate elsewhere. In fact, their range is quite small, averaging between four and fourteen square miles in the first few years of their life. Specifically  in Central Texas, you’re most likely to spot one in South or Southeast Austin, towards the flatter and more open Blackland Prairies.

Caracaras are unique in many ways. For your first fun cocktail party fact, in addition to their fohawk, they also have a mood ring in the form of a featherless patch of skin on their face. This patch of skin changes color depending on their stress level, ranging from deep red to yellow. This is thought to be caused by blood bypassing the blood vessels right beneath their skin, draining the red to a pale yellow color when threatened. As it turns out, their fohawk is also used as a form of communication: when they feel on edge or threatened, they raise it up to alert other birds.

They also have a uniquely adapted hunting style, with feet to match. When they spot prey from their perch, they don’t typically swoop down and snag it with their talons as other birds of prey do. Instead, they land next to it and run towards their prey until they overtake it (similar to Africa’s Secretary Bird). Because of this odd habit, their talons are flatter than other raptors, allowing them to walk and run more easily.

Photo by Loren Mooney

 Before breeding season (which here in Texas is typically between January and June), Crested caracaras will build their own nests perched high over an open pasture. Most other raptors would never do this, opting instead to lay their eggs in an abandoned nest of some other creature. Male and female caracaras work together for 2-4 weeks to build a nest from sticks, twigs, leaves and moss until it’s ready for a few eggs that are incubated by both parents until they’re ready to hatch about a month later. After leaving the nest, the 8 week old fledglings will fly after their parents, continuing to harangue them for food for at least another couple of months until they are ready to live out their oddball ways on their own.

Crested Caracara, The Peregrine Fund
Crested Caracara, Texas Breeding Bird Atlas
Crested Caracara, Cornell Lab: All About Birds
Crested Caracara, University of Florida Ag Extension
Multispecies Recovery Plan for Crested Caracara, US Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville