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Northern Caracara


Caracara plancus

For many years, we casually looked for Caracara west of town, whenever we had reason to travel through the Tohono O'odham Reservation. In shape, it resembles a hawk, and because of its habit of feeding on carrion and roadkill along highways, one could assume that it is a member of the vulture family. Actually, it is a tropical member of the Falconidae or falcon family. Of the eight species of Caracaras, one species is extinct, the Guadalupe Caracara, and only one other barely reaches into the United States. Northern Caracara, formerly called Crested Caracara, ranges from northern limits of south central Florida, southern Texas, the O'odham Reservation in Arizona, and Baja, California; south through Central and South America to Tierra del Fuego; and across the ocean to Cuba, the Falkland Islands, and other offshore islands.

Given such a large range, the Caracara has adapted to many different habitats. Saguaro studded deserts of Arizona, tropical thorn forests, treeless pampas of South America, the prairies of central Florida, islands in the Atlantic, and snow-covered mountaintops in the Andes all provide a place for the bird. When not persecuted, Caracaras become tolerant of humans and their activities. They frequent stock tanks, especially in the hot summer. They even feed on dead cows or dogs within close proximity to houses.

A friend asked if we had ever been to the west side of the Baboquivari Mountains. They had been out to the base of the mountain there, and found a small campground and a trail up to the saddle. We had heard that a permit was required to be back there, so we called The Nature Conservancy in Tucson to check before we ventured out. They suggested we call the tribal district office on the reservation and ask. We did, and we got a permit to visit the sacred mountain with a simple telephone call. Hope was high that this time, we would find the Caracara. We packed our binoculars, hats, a good amount of water and a picnic in the car and headed west on what was a windy late morning in Tucson.

Caracaras are pretty big, reaching two feet in length, with a wingspan of up to 52 inches, and weighing as much as 3 pounds. Long-necked and long-legged, same-sized females and males look alike. Adults wear contrasting black and white plumage. Juveniles are brown, not black. Keen red-orange faces stand out against a black crest that they can raise and lower, and white head and neck. A large white eagle-like bill is blue at the base. Their wings, tail and lower back are dark; their creamy white upper back and chest barred with black. In flight, distinctive white wing "windows" are prominent at the ends of dark wings. This along with its white breast and white tail with a dark tip helps to differentiate the Caracara from a somewhat similar Black Vulture also found on the reservation.

Neither Hornaday writing in 1908 nor Lumholtz writing in 1912 mentions a Caracara presence on its current range. If it is a relative newcomer, what has encouraged it to come this far north? First, the introduction of domestic livestock provided a constant food source. Second, carcasses not removed from the range made carrion available. Third, high-speed roads across the reservation provided more carrion in the form of roadkills.

On the way into Baboquivari Park, we stopped to look at a large nest in the branches of a giant saguaro, not far off the road. We hoped it was a Caracara nest. Once we stopped, we knew it was probably a raven or maybe a Red-tailed Hawk nest. The nest contained big sticks of mesquite and creosote. Caracaras build nests out of finer material like bursage, wolfberry, snakeweed and burroweed.

We reached the park, and noticed signage placed by US Fish and Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy. A Cardinal perched in the hackberries lining the campground. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher flitted in the bushes. We took an invigorating hike up the trail, pausing to look out over the valley stretching out to the horizon. A coatimundi raced across the trail. Ravens soared below us. No Caracara showed itself.

We returned to the campground for a reconstituting picnic, then drove past the stone monolith that faces the peaks. A sign informing us that this was "Picture Rock" drew us over. We parked, and looked up at the rocky walls in front of us. On the top of the edifice, were two large birds. Closer looks with our binoculars revealed what we had come after - a pair of Caracaras. Silently, they looked over the surrounding ranchland. One boulder-hopped up to the other. After some small adjustments to their positions, the two birds touched. They were not bothered by the two of us as we gawked first from the car, and then from the road. Two Common Ravens flew up, and after a brief harassing, the Caracaras took flight. We walked up to the rock. Petroglyphs and pictographs drew our attention. Ancient people had left behind representations of snakes, people, and rain clouds, birds, rainbows, spirals, and suns. To our eyes, a language or a communication was incised into those rocks. Perfectly round and smooth holes, for grinding raw pigment, were at the base of the pictographs and petroglyphs.

With the sun growing lower in the sky, we headed out another dirt road. Tired from climbing, full from our picnic, inspired by ancient art, and excited because we had finally seen the Caracaras, we scanned the flat land along the road as we drove. There were two large birds out there flying close to the ground, weaving in and out of the scrub like Marsh Hawks.

We stopped alongside the road, and checked them out. No Marsh Hawks but two Caracaras, probably the same two we had seen before, were on the desert floor. One had a brown furry animal that it furiously tore apart and ate. The other circled around the first, strutting rapidly and with great agility among the thorny plants on its long, strong legs and flat feet. The bird finished its meal and flew up on deep wing strokes to the top of a nearby saguaro. The other bird stayed on the ground, scratching about like a chicken for a few minutes. Then it too flew up to the top of the same saguaros. It actually mounted the other bird, then flew off to another saguaro top maybe ten or fifteen feet away.

The rays of the setting sun colored the sky, and it was time to leave. Taking our impressions of this special place, and its incredible animals with us, we drove out and back to Tucson. Our long wait to see Caracaras in Arizona was over.

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