Birds – Caracaras

The Caracaras (Polyborus), of which four species are now known, may be regarded as typical of the subfamily, the characters of which have been set forth on page 212. They are rather handsome birds, from twenty to twenty-five inches in length, dark brown or blackish above, the cheeks, neck, chest, and tail-coverts soiled white, while the upper part of the back and breast are barred with whitish and dusky, and the tail white with numerous narrow bars of grayish or dusky, and a broad terminal or subterminal band of dusky. Audubon’s Caracara (P. cheriway) ranges from the southern border of the United States south through Mexico (but apparently skipping parts of Central America) to Guiana and Ecuador. It is a rather shy bird, rarely allowing a close approach, and may often be seen “sitting for hours in an exposed place with ruffled plumage and half-spread wings exposed to the sun, for the purpose of absorbing the warmth of its rays.” It is also often seen on the ground, where it walks easily and grace-fully, and is able to catch agile insects by running after them. Its principal food consists of carrion, devouring greedily dead animal matter of all kinds, but it also feeds on lizards, snakes, frogs, young alligators, crabs, crawfish, insects, and occasionally small birds and mammals, being, however, especially fond of snakes. It has also been observed in the act of forcing Pelicans to disgorge their catch of fish, attacking them from above, darting down with shrill screams, and striking them with their talons. Sometimes they may catch the fish before they reach the ground, but usually they alight to enjoy the ill-gotten supplies. A correspondent quoted by Bendire, describing their hunting of other game, says: “I have seen them hunting prairie dogs, in couples, and once showing a high degree of intelligence. One was hidden behind a tussock of grass while the other danced before a young lamb, trying to lead it from the place where its mother was grazing to where its companion was hidden. The ruse was nearly successful, as the lamb began to follow, but the dam, anxiously watching, finally called it back.” These birds also frequent the vicinity of slaughter-houses, but on the whole are regarded as inoffensive and even valuable for their work as scavengers and in destroying noxious animals and insects. They are peculiar in that they often carry their prey in the bill, the species to be next described being especially noted for this method of carrying. Their nests, which are sometimes used for several successive seasons, are large, rather slovenly made affairs, placed in a variety of situations according to the locality. In the river bottoms the nests are high up in the trees, but in the open country,” where there is a scarcity of suitable vegetation, it is placed in low bushes a few feet high.” They are composed of small branches, weed stems, reeds, and coarse grasses, and shallowly lined with finer grass, leaves, Spanish moss, etc. The handsome eggs, usually two or three in number, are rounded ovate in shape, and mostly a uniform rufous-cinnamon in color, this being overlaid with irregular blotches and spots of darker shades. Both male and female take part in the duties of incubation.