The Crested Caracara, A Rural Florida Icon

By: Kara Tyler-Julian

With its unique and beautiful ecosystems, Southwest Florida is likewise home to many unique and beautiful animal species. Many people flock to southwest Florida to enjoy the ample birding opportunities offered here, though sadly, those opportunities are decreasing due to habitat loss and climate change (shifting migratory bird patterns). Nonetheless, the area is still home to a truly unique species of bird, the Crested Caracara, scientific name Caracara plancus. This iconic raptor looks like a hawk and behaves like a vulture, but it is actually the largest falcon species found in Florida.

Unlike most birds of prey, which prefer to perch in trees, the Caracara can often be seen walking about on the ground. Similar to vultures, caracaras feed on carrion though they may also occasionally take live prey such as baby birds. The favored habitat of caracaras is open habitat such as wet prairies and pastures, which is, unfortunately land that is quickly disappearing as more housing developments are built. Unlike other falcons who use nests created by other birds or depressions in rock or ground, the caracara builds its nest in cabbage palm trees. The nests are very well hidden amongst the large palm fronds, so it is extremely important to be observant around cabbage palm trees when conducting any clearing or building activity that may disrupt their nesting behavior.

These striking and unforgettable birds, though uncommon, are relatively easy to find and identify if you know where to look. They often perch on dead trees or powerlines along highways that pass through open agricultural and rural areas. If you’re keen on spotting one, a ride down state roads 82, 29, 70, and other roads in central southern Florida might just do the trick. However, it’s important to remember that despite being protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act,  the Crested Caracara’s unique habitat is under threat. Our collective efforts in observing and protecting their habitat are crucial in ensuring their continued existence.

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