South Texas Natives: Crested Caracara

Written by:

Posted on:




Get The Latest:

Join our print or digital newsletter to be informed about the agency’s many projects and other news.

Crested Caracara sits on fence Photo Credit: Peter Joseph, River Warrior volunteer

Last Updated on January 30, 2024

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a pair of Crested Caracaras (Caracara plancus). I was running through Olmos Basin Park in San Antonio and spied what I thought was a pair of Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) drinking from a rain puddle. On closer inspection, I observed some unique distinctions: striking white and black plumage, long legs, bright yellow-orange faces, and blueish silver-hooked beaks. What were these chicken/vulture/eagle-looking hybrids? Puzzled, I flipped open my iNaturalist app, snapped a picture, and learned that the birds were Crested Caracaras, members of the Falcon family common throughout the San Antonio River Basin, the Southern United States, and parts of Central America. And their population appears to be expanding.

A pair of Crested Caracaras at Olmos Basin Park.

The first part of the Crested Caracaras name refers to their long, black head crests. The word “caracara” comes from a South American indigenous word that refers to their guttural, rattling calls that apparently sound like running a stick along a fence. Unlike most birds of prey, Crested Caracaras stalk and run down their game on foot rather than diving or pouncing. They are opportunistic eaters and have an extensive and varied diet. You can often spot them walking along the ground looking for insects and reptiles, wading in shallow water to catch fish and amphibians, or along the road waiting for fresh roadkill. Crested Caracaras are quite aggressive, flying relatively low to scan the ground for prey and beating out Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) at carrion feasts.

These birds are the only members of the family Falconidae that collect materials to build a nest with their mate, which they will stay with for several years. Other falcons use an old nest or a depression in the ground to lay eggs. Crested Caracaras and their family group will also help clean each other’s feathers in a behavior known as allopreening.

Crested Caracara bird walking through tall grass.

Did you know? The oldest recorded Crested Caracara was at least 21 years, nine months old!
Photo Credit: Peter Joseph


Is that a Crested Caracara on the Mexican flag?

The short answer is No. The bird on the Mexican Flag is most believed to be Mexico’s National Bird, the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), or as it’s known there, “El Águila Real.” However, some scholars and archaeologists believe that the pre-Columbian Aztec pictograms used as a reference for the Mexican flag depicted a Crested Caracara. They also say that many indigenous and pre-Hispanic peoples revered the bird. This debate is further confused by the fact that a common name for the Crested Caracara is “Mexican Eagle.” Nevertheless, the Golden Eagle was enshrined as the national bird of Mexico in 1984. Sorry about that, caracaras.

Where can I see a crested caracara?

Over 650 observations of the Crested Caracara have been reported in the four largest counties of the San Antonio River Basin: Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad. There have also been numerous sightings along the coastline of San Antonio Bay.

Map with pinpoints identifying Crested Caracara sightings.

A map of Crested Caracara sightings in San Antonio. Source:

Your best chance of seeing this bird of prey is during their favored foraging times: early mornings and late afternoons. Look for them flying low, walking on the ground in open landscapes, foraging on a carcass, or perching on the tallest tree or structure nearby. Caracaras avoid areas with thick ground cover, so head to pastures, farmlands, brushlands, open fields, roadways, or golf courses for the best chance of spotting them. You might also see them near slaughterhouses, henhouses, and dumps scavenging for food.

Crested caracara soaring through sky.

One way to quickly identify a flying Crested Caracaras is by its white under-tail and outer wing feathers.
Photo Credit: Peter Joseph

How Can I Help These Birds?

Although Crested Caracaras are listed as a species of low conservation concern, we can still take steps to ensure their future in our watershed. Like many other bird species, their habitat faces threats from urbanization, the subsequent loss of nesting areas, and collisions with vehicles on roadways. Some landowners also see the Crested Caracara as a threat to pets and livestock, although the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has debunked this. For studies on the impact of climate change on the range of the Crested Caracara, check out this study from the Audubon Society.

Crested Caracara sits in oak tree.

In addition to the Crested Caracara, there are ten other species of caracara. However, they live exclusively in Central and South America. Photo Credit: Peter Joseph

Ultimately, the best way to help these fantastic falcon-like avians is to learn more about them and advocate for sustainable land development that protects the biodiversity of birds. With these actions, we can help the Crested Caracara and the health of ecosystems throughout our watershed.

Related Articles


Riverfront Parkway – Acequia Lift Station

Thursday, June 20 – Sunday, June 23, Riverfront Parkway is partially closed. Expect delays in traffic due to construction work. We apologize for any inconvenience.

San Pedro Creek: Rains from the Heavens

The Rains from the Heavens water wall at San Pedro Creek will be shut off due to maintenance Tuesday, June 18th. There will also be some road closures that day, so please be mindful if you are in this area. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Acequia Trail Notice

The Acequia trail will have heavy traffic near MROC starting May 22nd until further notice. The SAWS Acequia project will be bringing in crews to work on the lift station site and across the street. There will have flaggers to stop traffic, please use caution. 

SASPAMCO Paddling Trail

The SASPAMCO paddling trail is open from River Crossing Park to Helton Nature Park.
*Please Note: Paddling Trail from Helton Nature Park to HWY 97 is still closed due to blockages. 

River Reach Newsletter and Blog Signup

River Reach is offered as a printed, physical mailing to your residence or business. The Blog is a weekly electronic email with news and updates in order to be more environmentally conscious. Please fill out the form below and indicate your preferred method of delivery.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing materials from: San Antonio River Authority, 100 East Guenther St., San Antonio, TX, 78204, US. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.