Audubon's crested caracara numbers hover around 1,000 in Florida, threatened but stable

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

They look like some type of medieval war eagle, or a small condor that's just had a complete makeover.

Florida's flat-footed falcon, the northern crested caracara (Caracara cheriway), is one of the most graceful and beautiful birds in the Sunshine State. It's also known as Audubon’s crested caracara.

Listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, they live in Central Florida east, north, west and south of Lake Okeechobee — from the Orlando area south to Marco Island and Everglades National Park.

Here are some things to know about this foot-stomping bird.

Is it Audubon's bird?

A  pair juvenile crested caracara forage in a pasture off of State Road 82, on Tuesday, April 17, 2023.

The caracara in Florida are considered a sub-species, and an Audubon family member shot and killed one in the early 1800s in order to paint the bird onto canvas and describe it to others.

"John James Audubon shot one near St. Augustine and painted it, so it's been named for that as a subspecies designation," said Paul Gray, with Audubon Florida. "It was around 1832, just before the second Seminole War."

The birds are also found Arizona, Texas, Mexico, and Central and South America.

A  pair of  crested caracara perch in a dead tree in a pasture off of State Road 82, on Tuesday, April 17, 2023.

A colorful University of Florida agriculture extension website describes them well: "A toupee-like black cap and crest contrasts strongly with its white neck and cheeks. In flight, the undertail and outer flight feathers contain white panels. Juveniles are brown and cream and lack the adults' intense yellow-orange legs and faces."

Known for being aggressive and bullying other birds, caracara are tough customers.

They tend to feed alongside vultures and will eat practically anything, including, mammals, small birds, fish, amphibians and insects.

Population seems stable

With a rough estimate of 1,000 birds in the state, the population is considered stable, although threats like habitat loss remain.

The birds once lived in grasslands, much of which has since been converted to farmland.

But the birds have adapted to the relatively new landscape and to the changes of their natural environment.

In Florida, about 80% of the breeding population lives on farmlands, according to the University of Florida.

"If we lose ranches, we're going to lose caracara," Gray said.

A  pair juvenile crested caracara forage in a pasture off of State Road 82, on Tuesday, April 17, 2023.

By the numbers

The population in Florida was known to be declining in the 1930s, and only 500 remained in the state.

Adults reach 20 to 25 inches in length and have a wing-span of 4 feet or more.

Young learn to fly by six to eight weeks of age, although the fledglings often stay with the parents and harass them for food.

More:No injuries in roof fire that raged at Fort Myers Beach condo building Saturday afternoon

More:Sea turtle nesting season means female loggerheads will be on Southwest Florida beaches soon

More:Protect yourself: deer flies, horse flies emerging as summer approaches

More:'We’re quite concerned': Red tide, Lee County at center of 65 Florida manatee deaths

The haunting birds were first listed as threatened in Florida in 1987, and it's thought that about 1,000 birds remain in the Sunshine State today.

Crested caracara will build nests in anything from tall bushes to cabbage palm and even tall pine trees.

"In courtship, two birds may toss heads back repeatedly while giving guttural call. Members of a pair may preen each other's feathers," an Audubon website reads. "Nest sites vary, usually 8 to 50 feet above ground in (the) top of (a) shrub or tree, such as live oak, cabbage palm, acacia; in Arizona, sometimes in giant cactus."

They walk, run and pounce

If caracara played football, they'd be running backs.

Known for their thick, strong legs, caracara will literally stomp prey to death with their club-like feet.

Their talons and toes are flatter than other falcons, and that allows them to run faster and more efficiently.

A  pair juvenile crested caracara forage in a pasture off of State Road 82, on Tuesday, April 17, 2023.

Caracaras are opportunistic carnivores and will eat practically any living or dead animal matter, including insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, smaller birds, and mammals. They can often be found feeding alongside vultures on carrion or roadkill. 

But unlike other birds of prey, the one thing they don't do with their feet is carry their kills. They tend to use their strong beaks instead.

They're long-lived

Crested caracara can live up to 24 years in the wild. One bird in captivity lived to be 30 years old. That's a similar lifespan to the bald eagle.

A crested caracara perches in a dead tree in a pasture off of State Road 82, on Tuesday, April 17, 2023.

The peak of the breeding season runs from November through April, and mated pairs tend to use the same tree nest year after year, according to UF.

They typically lay two to three eggs, and one-third of all fledged chicks live at least three years — at which point they're sexually mature.

Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook.