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The Northern Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway), also called the Northern Caracara, Crested Caracara or Audubon’s Caracara, is a non-migratory, diurnal, neotropical bird of prey in the family Falconidae. It has a characteristic crest, strong banding on its chest, and long legs. Common especially in arid open country in Northern South America as far south as Central Brazil and Central Peru, throughout Central America, Cuba, and much of Mexico, the Northern Crested Caracara is also resident in the United States in southern parts of Texas, Arizona and Florida (an isolated population thought to be a relic from the ice ages).
The closely related Southern Caracara (C. plancus) and the extinct Guadalupe Caracara (C. lutosa) were previously lumped together with C. cheriway as a single species but the three species have since been split. While the range of the southern South American C. plancus does overlap with that of C. cheriway, only limited interbreeding occurs.
Like vultures, the Northern Crested Caracara generally scavenges for its food, eating mostly carrion, but also is an opportunist hunter of injured or young small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. It frequently is found with vultures at a food source, but is dominant to them and will chase them from a roadkill or other carrion. They will steal food from other birds. Unlike other falcons, Crested Caracaras fly low to the ground and hunt mainly by hopping along on foot, usually alone or in family groups up to five birds. Adults maintain a home range averaging about 1500 hectares, but juveniles can be nomadic and found in larger congregations.
The Federal Government and Florida State have listed the Florida population as threatened in recognition of decline to an estimated 500 individuals, due primarily to habitat loss. Other US populations have experienced significant decline in the past but appear to have stabilized (with the caveat that it is difficult to census population numbers). Changes in land use that increase pasture and some agricultural land sometimes benefit the Crested Caracara. However these birds are vulnerable to hunting, trapping and poisoning as their scavenging habits are widely considered undesirable. Habitat decline is still a real factor in their survival as human populations increase and land is converted from prairie and pasture to housing developments and agriculture with tree farms or orchards. Crested Caracaras are also reportedly affected by increasing traffic due to the fact that they spend much time on road-side carrion.
(BirdLife International 2012; Cornell Lab of Ornithology Staff 2011; Morrison 1996; Morrison 2001; Morrison and Dwyer 2012; US Fish and Wildlife Service; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Wikipedia 2013)