Northern Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)

Northern Crested Caracara

[order] FALCONIFORMES | [family] Falconidae | [latin] Caracara cheriway | [authority] Jacquin, 1784 | [UK] Northern Crested Caracara | [FR] Cacatoes banksien | [DE] Schopfkarakara | [ES] Carancho Norteno | [NL] Carancho


Genus Species subspecies Region Range
Caracara cheriway NA, LA s USA to n SA


The genus caracara, comprises of two species; both birds of prey in the family Falconidae. The Northern Caracara which was formerly considered conspecific with the Southern Caracara and the extinct Guadalupe Caracara. The Northern species is also known as the “Crested Caracara”. As its relatives, the Northern Caracara was formerly placed in the genus Polyborus. Unlike the Falco falcons in the same family, the caracaras are not fast-flying aerial hunters, but are rather sluggish and often scavengers.

Physical charateristics

The adult is very distinct. In South America there is wide overlap with the Chimango (Milvago chimango) and slight overlap in the mountains with Caracaras of rhe Phalcoboenus genus, and there may be confusion among the immatures. It can be distinguished from the Chimango by its larger size, more robust build and heavier, more direct flight. Adults can be distinguished from those of Phalcoboenus by the very different plumage pattern and by the streaked plumage and black crown.
The caracara group of falcons is generally not an impressive one, but this species with black crown and crest and aquiline profile looks more like a bird of prey. It is called the `Mexican Eagle’ and is the national bird of that country.

Listen to the sound of Northern Crested Caracara

[audio: Crested Caracara.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

recorded by Jeremy Minns

wingspan min.: 120 cm wingspan max.: 130 cm
size min.: 49 cm size max.: 58 cm
incubation min.: 28 days incubation max.: 32 days
fledging min.: 80 days fledging max.: 90 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 3  


North America, Latin America : South USA to North South America. It can be found in central and southern Florida, southern Texas, southern Arizona south to Tierra del Fuego, Cuba, Isle of Pines and the Falkland Islands.


It prefers open or semi-open country, either arid or well watered. Although it is usually seen at low elevations, in the Andes it has been seen at up to 8,000 or 9,000 feet. In North America it is strictly tropical or sub-tropical, but frequents colder areas in the southern continent.


Males are said to fight in the air in the mating season. The performance, in which the head is thrown back on the shoulder as the cackling cry is uttered, has some sexual significance. The nest is a large informal structure of sticks, often unlined, but sometimes lined with dry dung and trash including bones and pieces of dried skin. The eggs lay in a deep cup lined with a felted mass of pellets ejected by the parents. The nests are often re-used. They are placed in dense branches of trees, cacti or among palm fronds. In the treeless pampas it will nest on the ground, sometimes on an island in a marsh. It will also nest under overhanging rocks in treeless deserts. When the nest is visited the parents may hover or sit about, giving harsh, grating calls. The male serves as a look-out, on a conspicuous perch near the nest, but often leaves when danger approaches. The Caracara lays two or three eggs between November and February. The incubation period is about 28 days, the young remaining in the nest for another 8-12 weeks. Both members of the pair participate in all phases of nest life, including incubation.

Feeding habits

The caracara will eat all sorts of animal matter, all classes of vertebrates, insects and worms. It exists both as a scavenger and as a predator. It carries food in the bill, sometimes in the feet; and has been known to harry other birds up to the size of a buzzard until the latter drops its food. The long legs and flat claws enable it to walk, run around or scratch for food, almost like a chicken. It uses its feet to turn over branches or cakes of dried cow droppings in search of beetles and to scratch for insects, caterpillars and worms rather like a hen. At dusk, it has been seen walking carefully in water three or four inches deep, peering under the leaves of floating plants, presumably in search of frogs. It comes to dead livestock with vultures, although when the carcase is quite old it is mostly interested in insects. When eating small dead mammals or birds, it holds them down with one foot and pulls them to pieces with the coarse bill.
It is more predatory than a vulture, and is quick to pursue and kill any disabled or young bird. It is hated in sheep-growing areas where it is accused of killing weak lambs or foundered sheep. It will patrol a highway early in the morning before vultures are on the wing to eat anything killed during the night. Very partial to dead or dying fish, it also has been known to bring many small mud turtles to its nest, carrying them in the bill. It digs out turtle eggs, apparently after watching them lay. It also takes dung beetles, hard-shelled worms and other large invertebrates. It pirates food from weaker individuals of its own species, and also robs pelicans of fish. It even on occasion forces vultures to disgorge their prey by piratical attacks. In its feeding habits it can be described as extremely opportunistic.

Video Northern Crested Caracara


copyright: Josep del Hoyo


This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
Northern Crested Caracara status Least Concern



Distribution map

Northern Crested Caracara distribution range map

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