The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.

While caracaras will engage in certain distinctly non-falcon-like behaviors — the birds often walk through fields, and can be found sitting in the middle of roads — they soar with remarkable grace, and take live prey as well as dining on carrion.

Especially when on the wing, they rival even the peregrine or prairie falcon’s ability to evoke the title poem from Léonie Adams’s collection, High Falcon and Other Poems:

Send forth the high falcon flying after the mind
Till it come toppling down from its cold cloud:
The beak of the falcon to pierce it till it fall
Where the simple heart is bowed.
O, in wild innocence it rides
The rare ungovernable element,
But once it sways to terror and descent,
The marches of the wind are its abyss,
No wind staying it upward of the breast—
Let mind be proud for this,
And ignorant from what fabulous cause it dropt,
Or with how learnèd a gesture the unschooled heart
Shall lull both terror and innocence to rest.
                      “Send Forth the High Falcon” ~ Léonie Adams


Comments always are welcome.


105 thoughts on “The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

  1. I had a hard time figuring out that although they are sitting with their backs to the camera, their heads are turned around looking at it. Brilliant red beaks. They also look like they are having a bad hair day.

    1. As a group, raptors can’t move their eyes like we can. Instead, extra bones in their necks allow them to turn their whole head. Most don’t do as well as the owls, who can rotate their heads 270 degrees, but a 180 degree rotation is common, and this pair is putting their ability to use.

      Those crests certainly could qualify as a bad hair day. On the other hand, it’s easy to see where the “crested” in their name came from.

    1. Yes, all the photos here are mine. If I ever post one that isn’t, I’ll clearly credit the original photographer. This little gem was taken just an hour down the road, at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. While I don’t see these every time I’m out and about, they’re relatively common, and sometimes will appear in groups of a dozen or more.

      We can turn our heads 90 degrees to the right or the left, but raptors — eagles, owls, falcons — have extra neck bones that give them more flexibility. Owls can turn their heads 270 degrees. Many others can achieve a 180 degree turn, and the caracara clearly qualifies.

    1. Aren’t they, though? I suppose the bird people have a theory of why all that sassiness developed, but it certainly makes it easy to spot the bird in a field or tree — or, as in this case, on top of a picnic shelter.

    1. I wonder sometimes how many failures a raptor experiences before it makes a successful strike. While their hunting behavior is instinctual, they surely learn, as well. As the saying has it, “with age, comes wisdom.” It’s no doubt as true for the caracara as for us.

      There are other, far more famous poems that reference falcons. Yeats “The Second Coming” is one. But I occasionally find a lesser known poet whose work I enjoy, and Adams is one. I’m glad you enjoyed this example of her work.

  2. Looks amusing! Head and beak has some resemblance to that of a rooster. Caracara is even more amusing. ‘Kara kara’ in my language is an informal word for cacophony.
    Interesting post, Linda.

    1. Now that you mention it, their legs and feet are a bit roosterish, too. Given the nature of their call, I expect that a group of them vocalizing would be delightfully cacophonous. It’s always interesting when similarities appear in quite different languages — thanks for adding that little detail, rethy.

  3. They do look a bit cranky or fearsome. If I was a sparrow (which I am not) I would stay well away from them, the same if a frog.

    In Australia we have a black cockatoo which is very large. We often see them together with huge flocks of silver-crested cockies. When I say ‘huge’ I mean tens or even a hundred birds all squawking together. They will strip a tree of its leaves in no time.

    Our JRT loves chasing them.

    1. From what I’ve read, they’ll eat just about anything that moves — or doesn’t, in some cases, since they’re carrion eaters, too. Rabbits, ground squirrels, young alligators — they’ll take them all. And, yes: they’re known for plucking baby birds from the nest and frogs from the mud, too. Everybody has to eat.

      I’ve seen and read about white cockatoos, but never the black. They’re handsome birds, and it’s interesting that one species has a red tail. The Australian birding site I visited mentioned their raucous calls and flocking behavior; they must be quite a sight (and sound).

  4. What a fascinating bird and your images are superb. As other commenters have mentioned they definitely look a little weird with their heads turned back to front.

    1. We’re accustomed to an owl’s ability to turn its head backwards, but raptors generally do the same, although they can’t match the owl’s 270 degree turn. Extra bones in their necks compensate for their inability to move their eyes; they have to turn their entire head.

      I was pleased beyond words to find this pair. At first I stopped in the middle of the road and took a few photos. Then, since they didn’t seem particularly bothered, I started walking down the road, a few feet at a time, until I was close enough to capture this image. Something caught their attention, and they turned to look at the same time.

  5. They look very intelligent, and, as opportunists, they seem ready to take up any opportunity that presents itself. And I doubt that terror troubles their minds much.

    1. “Opportunists” is the right word. They hunt live prey, but they’ll also stop for a snack if carrion is available. They fly lower than vultures, so they’re often first on the scene. Apparently they can be a little possessive, and will try to drive away any vultures that want to get in on the action.

      Your comment about terror and troubled minds reminded me of the classic “Trouble In Mind”, from the great Texas musician, Lightnin’ Hopkins. You’re right: there’s probably no need for the caracara to sing such a song.

    1. They are striking birds. I’ve never seen any quite so brilliant as these, but I read that the color of their heads can vary by season and age. I’m sure their colors become more vibrant during mating season, but I’m not sure when that is.

      I laughed at your comment about their romantic name, but only because caracara never fails to bring to mind a romantic ballad from our youth. Can’t you imagine one of these singing to his sweetheart, “Cara, Cara mine”? That could be a parody worth working on.

      1. Talk about both looking at the same time……have you ever seen a pair of birds put their heads down, drink or preen themselves in unison. I watched a pair of Chestnut Teals do this repeatedly which had me fascinated.

        1. I’ve seen shoveler pairs feeding together who tip tail in synch, and this afternoon I witnessed a pair of glossy ibis bathing together: splashing, preening, and tipping tail at the same time. It’s something to behold, for sure. I”ve never seen birds drinking in unison, though. I wonder if some of these behaviors are meant to bond the pairs?

    1. This shows the more southerly species (Caracara plancus) but it’s a good example of their call and the head throwback display. I’ve never seen the behavior: perhaps because the birds I see tend to be eating or scanning for prey, rather than just sitting around on their branch.

      As for Cara Delevigne, any head throwback behavior might result from the same quality Bella Rum mentioned above: sassiness.

    1. You do, indeed. Plants aren’t the main attraction right now, because they’ve done a good bit of burning and mowing, but the last time I was there (when I photographed this pair) I also saw grebes, moorhens, coots, teal, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, and a single tricolored heron. I’m going down later this morning — but not too late, because these short days and early sunsets have to be accounted for!

    1. I’m not sure they were posing for me, Dina. I think it’s more likely they were tolerating me while they scanned the horizon for something to eat!

      That display is something I’d love to see. I’ve been told that they frequent burned areas because the hunting is easier. There’s a lot of burned land around right now, so my chances of seeing more may be good.

      1. It’s so tragic with those destructive fires, I feel so sorry for all the people and wildlife deprived of their land.
        Good luck hunting then!

        1. Oh! The fires around here haven’t been wildfires, as in California. They’re prescribed burns, set in order to rejunvenate and help maintain the prairies. Of course, from the caracara’s perspective, the result is the same — more dinner on the table!

  6. That is quite a gorgeous bird. I have never heard about crested caracara. So interesting that they belong to the family of falcons. My first thought was vultures, albeit of the more beautiful kind. :-)

    1. This species is a permanent resident in Cuba, so some of your contacts there may know it. It’s also found in Peru, and other caracara species can be found throughout South America. The variations are quite small — no matter the species, they’re going to be recognizable, and sound pretty much the same.

      They’re a dramatic bird, no doubt about that. But look how they start out!

    1. I really was lucky to find them there. They’re sitting on the roof of a small picnic shelter that’s a favored spot for lots of birds. I’ve seen cormorants there, as well as night herons and a great blue heron. There aren’t many trees around, so the shelter serves as a good vantage point for them.

      I’m glad you like the photo. There’s nothing like a nice, blue sky for a background.

  7. Gorgeous photo! I love caracaras, though rarely see them here in Austin. They dot the sky whenever I travel anywhere south of here though–graceful on the wing, with me attempting to see the bright beak.

    1. I saw one flying today. You know how easy they are to spot because of those white tail and wing markings, but it is hard to catch a glimpse of their beak. Since you’re a fan, I’ll share a photo that cracks me up every time I look at it, even though it’s not good enough to post publicly. Sometimes, life just wears a fellow out! And no, he wasn’t injured. When I tried to get closer for a better shot, he was up and away in a flash.

      1. Haha! Great shot, actually, though he doesn’t quite look comfortable! You’re right about the white on the wings; maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part in viewing the colorful beak!

    1. They’re impressive. Quite apart from the color scheme, and that ruffle of fancy feathers around their necks, they’re quite large. In fact, I’d say they’re eagle-sized. After they burned the patch of prairie I was keeping track of, it was possible to see them foraging in the fields quite a distance from the road.

  8. Those are distinctive looking birds. I like how you caught them both looking backward. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them described before. Thanks.

    1. I wasn’t sure which of my photos to use, but I thought the one that showed their ability to swivel their heads was interesting. What I don’t know is whether they’re included in the various hawkwatch and raptor watch programs. I need to ask some of my more knowledgeable birding friends and acquaintances.

  9. Don’t guess I’ve ever seen any of these, Linda. It almost looks like they’re wearing toupees, ha! The part about them picking up live prey sort of gives me the creeps. I know they have to eat, too, but it must be a frightening sight to watch them scoop up something alive (bunnies, squirrels, etc.) and haul them off screaming.

    1. We’re lucky to see them as often as we do, Debbie. There’s a very small pocket of them in Florida, and they creep a bit into Arizona, but Texas is the only state where they show up with some freqency. They’re far more common in Mexico, and Central and South America.

      Now that you mention it, they do look like they’re wearing toupees. The crest isn’t always raised like that. It’s usually smoother, and flat. I suppose when they get irritated or interested in something, they raise it. I did read this: “Facial skin color changes from bright orange-red to yellowish depending on the bird’s activity and disposition.” That made me laugh. We say people get red-faced when they get angry — maybe the birds do, too.

  10. Oh wow I have not encountered this interesting species yet here in Florida . I am most certainly missing out. I do love your series concept ” the poets’ birds.” Sometimes I feel I’ve been indoctrinated into love of birds through every painted image or written metaphor through the years.

    1. Believe it or not, the species in Florida is known as Audubon’s crested caracara. It’s scientific name is Polyborus plancus audubonii and the link has a map showing its territory is almost literally your backyard. It’s on the endangered/threatened list, primarily because of habitat loss. I read that it nests in cabbage palms, and like everything else, those are being taken out by construction.

      It seems they like grassy areas, so you probably won’t find them overlapping your water birds, but I’ll bet they’re around. It’s something new for you to look for as you start roaming again!

    2. Here’s another interesting article. It seems that your bird is our bird, but that the taxonomists got involved, and things got complicated. Honestly, I can’t quite figure it out. I need to read through all the articles again. In any event, there is agreement about their range, so I hope you see one.

      1. Looks like I am too far south and east for its current distribution and that it is generally Threatened in Florida while not in its other areas of distribution. I would love to see one and perhaps on exploration to the west or central state areas may luck out. It is a very interesting bird. Birds of prey always tend to have that intense, all knowing, all observing gaze…so interesting. I thought I was aware of most.

        1. You’re right about that gaze. I suppose part of it is the keen eyesight, and the constant need to surveille their environment, but part of it’s the fact that their eyes don’t move — they have to move their head, like an owl. They’re wonderful birds, that’s for sure.

          I just started working on a new boat, and I’ll be darned if an osprey hasn’t taken up residence on the mizzen mast and is dropping fish parts all over everything again. The last time I did this boat, he was around. I’m convinced it has to be the same bird, back from migration, and ready to do his worst!

  11. Good find, Linda. I like that you captured two in the frame. I don’t go on field trips anymore so I have not seen a caracara in quite a few years. In the past, I have always observed them in a flock of vultures as both species fed on carrion. It was always nice to get a glimpse of a caracara since they are not as common in my county. They seem to favor the western part of my county and on into Bosque and Coryell counties. However they very well might be found in greater numbers now days since it has been 30 years since I have actually gone on a filed trip to strictly look for birds. My work and other hobbies took the place of outings.

    1. I did read that their numbers are increasing here in Texas, but I’m not sure if they’re spreading north. I hope they do begin spreading toward you. They’re great fun to see — and as you say, they’re easy to spot if they’re around. I didn’t know that they hang out with vultures until I started reading about them. It’s neat that you’ve seen them in those mixed groups, too.

      I thought about you this afternoon when I ran into dozens of Gulf frittilaries. Some looked so fresh and new, and some clearly had a little history behind them. They’d found a patch of what might have been tropical sage, and some sunflowers, and were having a high old time. The monarchs are fewer every day now, after a couple of weeks of heavy migration. The year’s turning, no question about it — but the birds are coming in, so there still will be things to enjoy.

      1. I saw a total of two live monarchs and one dead one this fall. I did not see any in the spring. The Gulfs love my native passion vine and I had some around until about 10-12 days ago. I saw one queen today but have them all summer and until about mid- October. I really miss seeing the butterflies. When I am not feeling up to par I go out and stand near my little butterfly patch and I always feel better.

        1. The little yellow and white butterflies are disappearing, too, along with the dragonflies and damselflies. It’s time for that to begin happening — it’s just a surprise, because it feels as though it ought to still be about August. Sometimes I wish we could turn our calendars back, as well as our clocks!

  12. Wow, pretty jazzy-looking customers. a cool shot! They do look like a couple of tough guys on the corner, with their hats pulled down to their eyebrows.
    I won’t pretend I’m confident that I understand that poem, but I sure love it. I’ll print it out, carry it around a few days, think about it — could be about the heart prevailing over the intellect, but it’s beautiful and worth thinking over. It occurs to me, that I don’t think you’ve ever posted a poem I didn’t think was interesting.

    1. I’ve known the poem for a while, but every time I pull it out I have to start over, reading it slowly and deliberately while I try again to figure out what she’s getting at. It’s a great example of a poem I enjoy from a poet who mostly leaves me cold. I debated even posting it, but decided, what the heck: she was one of our Poet Laureates, after all, and a little old-fashioned structure never hurt anyone.

      I think you’re right about the heart/intellect dichotomy. I have found myself wondering: what is the falcon?

      I laughed at your tough guys on the corner description. Those black feathers just across the top of their eyes do add to the impression, don’t they? Here’s an interesting tidbit I found — they don’t carry their prey in their talons. Instead, they use their beak. If that beak is strong enough to carry dinner, I don’t believe I’d want to mess with it.

  13. Quite interesting, Linda. It’s sort of the Linda Blair, look. (Grin) I Googled Caracaras to find more photos and quickly noted that your two were quite unusual in terms of having their crests up. I scrolled down quite a ways until I came on a pair with their crests up, just like yours. And then I realized… they were yours. I am always amazed at how fast the trolling bots of Google capture photos. It is a very interesting bird, my brother’s favorite when he was hanging out in Florida a lot. –Curt

    1. The Florida caracaras have been placed on the threatened/endangered lists because of habitat loss. Taxonomy confuses the heck out of me, but apparently it’s known as Audubon’s caracara in Florida because Audubon discovered it there. According to this article, several name changes have taken place over time, but this crested caracara is the same as the Audubon caracara. I think.

      In any event, they’re fine birds. I have some photos of this pair with nice, smooth crests, so the fluffed feathers clearly are a response to stimuli. If only people would send such clear signals!

  14. What funny birds! They are intent on staring at something, aren’t they? They look like a cross between a beatle and a muppet! (Come to think of it, they remind me of the Gloster fancy canary…)

    1. I had no idea at all what a Gloster fancy canary might be, but as soon as I saw that topknot, and read a reference to “Ringo,” I got your Beatle reference. They are tiny things, aren’t they? It would take a good number of Glosters to make one caracara. I don’t believe I’d let my canary close to the caracara, though, for obvious reasons!

  15. Lovely birds, and I can picture you creeping forward gently as to not disturb them. Somehow, they remind me more of a judge dressed in full regalia – “going before the Beak” even tho the origins are different :-)
    Talking of poetry, I’m expecting my copy of Mary Oliver’s book (Why I wake early) any day now.

    1. What an interesting perspective. Now that I look again, I can see the feathers around the neck and crop resembling a decked-out English judge.

      I’ve learned that, for whatever reason, a car functions perfectly well as a movable bird blind, but when staying in the car isn’t possible — here, the birds were directly in front of me, with water-filled ditches on either side — I do what I’ve read of in others’ blogs. I take a few photos, and then start walking toward the bird or animal. I go a little distance, take more photos, then walk even closer. Obviously, it worked with these guys. The finally flew, but I nearly was at the point where a telephoto lens wasn’t needed. I suspect they wouldn’t have hung around so long if they’d been on the ground.

      I’ll be interested to hear how you like Oliver’s book. The title poem is one of my very favorites.

  16. I’ve never seen or heard of these particular birds before, not even when we lived in Arizona. Their unique appearance would attract attention — the red catching an eye, let alone those feathered heads.
    Probably they favor areas more secluded from people, I suppose, or their numbers are few. That’s a spectacular photo!

    1. Even in Arizona, their range is fairly limited. Here in Texas, they’re predominately in the southern half of the state, and more common the farther south you go — partly because those areas are more agricultural. They are eye-catching. I remember seeing my first ones, during Thanksgiving week several years ago. They were in a tree, and we mistook them for eagles at first. “Mexican eagle” is a good name for them.

      1. As I scrolled through the comments, and thought about what I’d write, I planned to say something about them being beautiful birds. Then I saw your comment that they aren’t “pretty.” Beautiful no longer seems like an appropriate description, so I guess I’ll go with striking (but they still look beautiful to me).

        1. You know that old saying about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, Sheryl. If you think they’re beautiful — stick with it! Even if I thought they were ugliness personified, and you still thought them beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with that.

          I will say that I think “pretty” and “beautiful” are different qualities. I’ve known women who aren’t at all pretty in any conventional sense, but they’re as beautiful as can be, and often quite elegant.

          I’m just glad this pair posed for me, so we could sit around and try to decide whether they’re striking, pretty, beautiful, or handsome. And I’m especially glad no one’s said, “Those are the ugliest danged birds I’ve ever seen!”

  17. Well I am going to be partial to these judicial fellows on the roof as I see you have included their surnames…caracara CHERIway. Excellent!

    1. How about that? I didn’t even notice your name tucked into the specific epithet. I just did a quick search, and couldn’t find any reference to the source for cheriway, so we’ll just let it be a tribute to you. They do look rather imposing with their judicial-like feathers, don’t they? Does the judge throw his head back while on the bench?

  18. I’ve been racking my brain to think of where I saw a caracara bird, and I think it was far southern Chile. Would that make sense? It wasn’t exactly tropical there. I had no idea they were here; birds are one of those things I need to learn more about in my new state!

    1. That certainly does make sense. There’s another species, the southern caracara (Caracara plancus) that can be found across South America, including Chile. You can find more information here. They prefer plains, savannahs, and so on. You won’t find them in the Amazon basin, for example. But from the mapped sightings, it seems they’re quite common.

      The birds really are coming in to the refuges now. Whooping cranes have been sighted at the Aransas refuge, and it won’t be long until the sandhills are here. I saw a flock of roseate spoonbills flying over at work last week — I do love my “office”!

    1. What a wonderful coincidence, Sheryl. Thanks so much for adding that link; it was interesting to read the account of the discovery — so much excitement, not only for the tourist, but for the bus driver, as well. I never would have imagined that they’d range that far north, but at least a couple of them surely did!

      I’m so glad you like the photo. There’s nothing like a beautiful blue sky to set off a pair of birds: or flowers, or trees, for that matter.

    1. I’m not surprised, as they don’t get up into your area. On the other hand, they do frequent Louisiana — but not the swamps. They are quite something, and it was a thrill to see this para caras. (That just happened. I decided to leave it!)

    1. They are spectacular birds, Nia. They’re also willing to sit around for long periods of time, which is a great help to photographers. I find it hard to photograph butterflies, birds that flit, and other fast-moving things, so it’s great to have these to practice with.

  19. Another reason to get to Texas! I really know nothing about this bird, so thank you for introducing it, and what a fantastic photo that is! I love those long legs, and the idea that the bird walks through fields, or stands in the middle of a road (with eyes open, I assume!).

    1. The world is filled with wonders. I keep thinking about the Palouse, and the Canadian Rockies. And the Four Corners area, and New Mexico generally. Thank goodness for caracaras and other local beauties and oddities to keep us alert and interested!

  20. What an unusual bird! I love falcons and to me, this species is gorgeous. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of Sam Gribley and his falcon, Frightful, in Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain”. I have always loved being different – I could see myself with a Crested Caracara as a companion in the woodlands. Too bad we do not see them here.

    1. On the other hand, your squirrels probably would appreciate the caracara keeping its distance. A few hundred miles’ distance, as a matter of fact. Nature will take its course, but I’d hate to have such a fine hunter as this one after your little critters!

      It is an unusual bird, given that it will hunt live prey and feed on carrion. I need to begin looking more closely at groups of vultures, now that I know the caracara will hang out with them.

      Even though it’s classified in the falcon family, there have been discussions about moving it, based on DNA rather than on appearance or behavior. I’m not clear if anyone’s working on that now, but I suppose we’ll hear about it if the reclassification takes place.

      1. You convinced me…. and I just saw Punkin and Buddy this morning. They have enough predators after them here – the foxes and various raptors. No need to invite another one!

  21. Lovely photos, thanks! I so like it when an animal name mimics the sound they make. I have a Cree friend who has told me that some words like waterfall, or river, do a similar thing in that language.

    1. And we English speakers try, although we have to use little tricks to get the same result. “Brook” or “river” don’t connote much at all, but “rushing river” or “babbling brook” do come closer to the sound of live water. And of course we have susurrus, which works for a stream. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the rivers and birds think of our languages?

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