8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

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