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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 17:30 EDT

Yellow-headed Caracara, Milvago chimachima

The Yellow-headed Caracara is a bird of prey belonging to the Falconidae family. It’s found in tropical and subtropical South America and the southern part of Central America. Not like falcons in the same family, the caracara is not a fast-flying aerial hunter, but it is rather sluggish and often gets food by scavenging.

The caracara is 16 to 18 inches long and weighs 11.5 ounces on average. Just like many other birds of prey, the females are larger than the males, weighing 11 to 13 ounces opposed to the males 9.9 to 12 ounces. Besides the differences in their size, there are no significant sexual differences in this species. It has broad wings and a long tail, somewhat resembling a small Buteo. The adult has a beige head, with a black streak behind its eye, and beige underparts. The upper plumage is brown with distinctive pale patches on the flight feathers of its wings, and its tail is barred cream and brown. Its head and underparts of young birds have thick brown spotting. Their voice is a characteristic screamed schreee.

This is a bird of savanna, swamps, and the edging of forests. It is a resident of Costa Rica south through Trinidad and Tobago to northern Argentina (the provinces of Misiones, Chaco, Formosa, Corrientes and Santa Fe. It’s typically found from sea level to 5,900 feet, intermittently to 8,500 feet above average sea level. In southern South America, it is substituted by a close relative, the Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango, whose range partly covers that of the Yellow-headed Caracara in southern Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. A larger and heavier paleosubspecies, Milvago chimachima readei, occurred in Florida and maybe even elsewhere some tens of thousands years ago, during the Late Pleistocene. As indicated by the Peregrine Fund database, the Yellow-headed Caracara is intensifying its range into Nicaragua.

Being omnivorous, the Yellow-headed Caracara eats mainly reptiles, amphibians, and other small animals as well as carrion. Birds are rarely if ever taken, and this species will not elicit warning calls from other mixed-species flocks hunting for food together that cross its path even in open cerrado habitat. These birds will also take ticks from cattle and is locally called a “tickbird”. It has also been seen foraging for small invertebrates in the fur belonging to brown-throated three-toed sloths. Additionally, at least younger birds are fond of certain types of fruits, like those of the Oil palm. When the Yellow-headed Caracara bird lays its eggs, there is usually only 5 to 7 brown-marked beige eggs laid in a stick nest in a tree.

This bird has benefited from forest clearing for cattle ranching. In Trinidad, its status has changed from rare to fairly common, and it was first spotted on Tobago in 1987. It familiarizes quite gladly to urban areas and, together with species such as the American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus, it’s among the most commonly seen bird of prey in Latin American cities. As a result, this wide-ranging species has been categorized at risk level of Least Concern category on the IUCN Red List. In Panama City for example, as a result of the enlarged urban sprawl, Yellow-headed Caracara pairs are frequently seen along the rooftops in suburban neighborhoods.

Image Caption: Yellow-headed Caracara from Colon province, Panama. Credit: DeVerm/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yellow-headed Caracara Milvago chimachima