Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara)

Caracara cheriway

Last updated: March 28, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit iStock.com/Florence and Joseph McGinn

The northern crested caracara mates for life with its partner

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Falconiformes
Family
Falconidae
Genus
Caracara
Scientific Name
Caracara cheriway

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Conservation Status

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Locations

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Locations

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Facts

Prey
Rabbits, squirrels, skunks, frogs, lizards, snakes, turtles, fish, insects, birds, and alligators
Fun Fact
The northern crested caracara mates for life with its partner
Estimated Population Size
Unknown
Biggest Threat
Unknown
Most Distinctive Feature
The multi-colored beak
Other Name(s)
Mexican eagle
Wingspan
1.2-1.3m (47-52in)
Incubation Period
30 days
Habitat
Prairies, deserts, and other semi-open terrains
Predators
Raccoons and crows
Diet
Carnivore
Type
Bird
Common Name
Northern Crested Caracara
Number Of Species
1
Location
North America and South America
Nesting Location
Shrubs, trees, and other structures
Age of Molting
42-56 days

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Blue
  • White
  • Orange
Lifespan
26 years
Weight
1.3kg (3lbs)
Height
50-65cm (20-26in)

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The northern crested caracara will sometimes steal food from other birds.

The northern crested caracara, also known as the Mexican eagle, is among the most common birds of prey in all of Central America. It is often considered to be its own separate species, but some taxonomists still classify it as a subspecies of the crested caracara. The popular name Mexican eagle is actually a misnomer. This bird is not an eagle at all; it belongs to the falcon family. The closest living relatives include the black caracara, black-throated caracara, and other caracaras.

3 Northern Crested Caracara Amazing Facts

  • In contrast to most falcons, the caracara flies through the air with slow, deliberate wing beats.
  • The northern crested caracara was regarded as a sacred bird by the Aztecs. One popular theory is that the Spanish settlers misinterpreted this bird as the golden eagle, which later became the national symbol of Mexico. While the golden eagle is found in northern Mexico, it isn’t nearly as widespread as the crested caracara. Some people still confuse this with the golden eagle, a completely separate species entirely.
  • A distinctive line of crested caracara from Guadalupe Island off the Pacific coast of Baja California went extinct in 1900.

Where to Find the Northern Crested Caracara

The northern crested caracara is endemic to a huge stretch of territory between the southern United States (mostly Florida, Arizona, and Texas) and northwestern Brazil, but it is most commonly associated with Mexico and Central America. Its closest related sibling, the southern crested caracara, can also be found from northern Brazil down to the tip of Argentina. These birds prefer to live in semi-open habitats with enough cover for nesting.

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Northern Crested Caracara Nests

Nesting sites are usually established at the top of tall shrubs or trees, up to 50 feet above the ground. Live oak, acacias, and even giant cactuses can all become a home for the caracara. The nests are usually constructed out of sticks, weed, and other random debris. They are typically reused from year to year.

Northern Crested Caracara Scientific Name

The scientific name of the northern crested caracara is Caracara cheriway. Caracara is a Spanish and Portuguese word that originally came from the indigenous Tupi language of Brazil. It is probably an imitation of the bird’s call. Cheriway is thought to be the native word for the crested caracara among people from Venezuela. The northern and southern crested caracaras are the only living members of their genus. Together they belong to the falcon family. The main difference between caracaras and other falcons is their more solitary, sedentary lifestyle. They are also slower flyers.

Northern Crested Caracara Size, Appearance, and Behavior

The crested caracara is a fairly large bird, measuring up to 26 inches long with a wingspan of around 4 feet. The unique plumage is quite striking: the dark brown lower body and outer wings transitions to a combination of buff white feathers and dark brown bars along the chest. The cheek and neck feathers are mostly buff white with minimal brown. However, the crown at the top of the head, which can be erected into a crest, is covered in solid brown plumage. The beak is an unusual combination of an orange base and light blue tip. The bird also features alternating bands of brown and white tail feathers. Both sexes are similar in appearance, but the juveniles have duller plumage.

The northern crested caracara spends a lot of time flying low in the air, searching for prey on the ground below. They start flying early in the morning and occasionally come down to the ground to hunt. One of their favorite strategies is to follow the winding path of the highway for potential road kills. Crested caracaras are mostly solitary hunters, but they do spend the breeding season with a mate. They communicate with each other through alarm and mating calls.

Northern Crested Caracara Diet

The northern crested caracara is considered to be an obligate carnivore, meaning they must eat meat to survive (although there are some scattered reports that they do consume fruit as well). They are highly aggressive when on the hunt, even chasing away vultures from their kills. It is considered to be an apex predator.

What does the northern crested caracara eat?

The northern crested caracara has a diverse diet that includes rabbits, squirrels, skunks, frogs, lizards, snake, turtles, fish, large insects, other birds and their eggs, and even young alligators. It does not care whether the prey is found dead or alive. It will feed on almost any kind of meat it can find. They will sometimes run along the ground to capture their prey.

Northern Crested Caracara Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

According to the IUCN Redlist, the crested caracara is a species of least concern. This means population numbers are quite healthy and it requires no special conservation efforts. In some places, however, it does appear to be threatened with habitat loss, road accidents, and low reproductive rates. This bird has disappeared from some parts of its range in the United States. That is why it has a disconnected population in Florida.

What eats the northern crested caracara?

An adult caracara has few predators in the wild and therefore enjoys a long, healthy lifespan. Eggs and juveniles are more vulnerable to raccoons, crows, and other birds of prey, but they are usually well protected by the parents.

Northern Crested Caracara Reproduction, Young, and Molting

The northern crested caracara forms lifelong monogamous pair bonds that mostly last until one partner dies. Courtship usually involves an elaborate ritual in which they toss their heads back and give a guttural call. After pairing up, they will continue to reinforce their bond over the years with mutual preening and care. The breeding season takes place every year between January and March. Together they produce a clutch of two or three eggs, rarely four, at a time. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for the first 30 days. After the chicks hatch, then parents will continue to bring food back to the nest. It takes about six to eight weeks for the chicks to start flying, but they may remain with the parents for another few weeks. The typical lifespan in the wild is somewhere around 26 years old.

Northern Crested Caracara Population

It’s difficult to estimate the true population size, but the conservation organization Partners in Flight suggests a combined population for both the northern and southern crested caracara of 2 million. Numbers appear to be increasing overall, but they have declined in parts of the United States. Even though it’s listed as least concern overall, the crested caracara is currently classified on the US endangered species list.

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About the Author

Growing up in rural New England on a small scale farm gave me a lifelong passion for animals. I love learning about new wild animal species, habitats, animal evolutions, dogs, cats, and more. I've always been surrounded by pets and believe the best dog and best cat products are important to keeping our animals happy and healthy. It's my mission to help you learn more about wild animals, and how to care for your pets better with carefully reviewed products.

Mexican Eagle (Northern crested caracara) FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Does the northern crested caracara migrate?

The caracara does not typically have a set migration pattern, but juveniles may travel long distances before establishing a territory.

How many eggs does the northern crested caracara lay?

The female usually lays two or three eggs per clutch, rarely four.

How fast does the northern crested caracara fly?

The flight speed of the caracara is not known.

What is the northern crested caracara’s wingspan?

This bird has a wingspan of approximately 4 feet long.

When do northern crested caracaras leave the nest?

Chicks start to leave the nest after around two months old.

What is a northern crested caracara called?

It’s also called the Mexican eagle, even though it’s really just a falcon.

Are northern crested caracaras rare?

Compared to other birds of prey, they are very common throughout their entire range.

Is a northern crested caracara a buzzard?

No, it’s actually a type of falcon, whereas the buzzard is a hawk.

How big can a northern crested caracara get?

The maximum size is about 26 inches long from head to tail.

Sources
  1. , Available here: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/crested-caracara
  2. , Available here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Crested_Caracara/lifehistory
  3. , Available here: https://travisaudubon.org/uncategorized/bird-of-the-week-crested-caracara

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