Crested Caracara

By Dan Weisz

Crested Caracaras are one of the more unusual looking raptors (and birds) that we have in southern Arizona.  I shared some photos of Crested Caracaras last April but have saved the following photos until now.  These are from a nest in an undisclosed location in southwestern Arizona.  Looking through a tight window between the arms of a saguaro cactus, you can see this Caracara with two of her three chicks on the nest.

Walking around the saguaro led us to a larger opening between saguaro arms.  We kept a good distance from the nest but using long telephoto lenses and then cropping the image during processing allows us a very close view of the family.

In southern Arizona, the Crested Caracara build their bulky nests in the swirling arms of saguaro cacti using twigs and stems.  Crested Caracaras look like hawks, behave like vultures (eating carrion) but are technically large, black and white members of the falcon family.

Several miles away was another nesting Caracara.  I had posted some photos of this nest back in the spring, but wanted to share this photo to compare it to the nest above.  This Caracara is sitting with her back to the sun. I believe she is spreading her feathers as a method of keeping cool on a hot desert morning.  The saguaro arms are much shorter than those at the other site but still provide the support needed to house a nest for big birds in a neighborhood without any large native trees!!

That was then.  I hadn’t wanted to share the nesting birds during the spring time and waited until now to do so.  At this point of the year, all of the young Crested Caracaras are off the nest and working their way through the winter.  Quite a few of the birds who live in the southwestern part of the state move a bit north during the wintertime and can be found from the outskirts of Tucson all the way up through the agricultural areas and desert flats north and west of Tucson on up to farmland near Phoenix and Florence.  Last week I saw a few Caracara in farmland in Pinal County in the Santa Cruz Flats- so this is now!

Crested Caracara will forage for food and will walk through farm fields looking for any living thing that is edible.  Adult birds have that light blue beak next to the bright orange bare-skin, dark feathers and a white neck.

Look at the colors of these adult Crested Caracaras and then compare it to the immature bird in the picture that follows.  The immature bird has brown feathers rather than black ones, a tan neck rather than a white one,  and pink skin on its face rather than the orange of an adult.

Birdnote, of course, has a nice story on Crested Caracaras. For some reason they “forgot” about the birds in Arizona.

Here’s proof that they do occur here regularly!!

In any case, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to see more of these special birds this winter!

The birds flew off towards the east under overcast skies.  In flight, you can see the white feathers at the tips of their wings and on their tails

The Caracara left and so I left.  We’ll both be back soon.

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