I am fascinated by birds of prey. They are by far, my favorite group of birds and whenever I am hawk-watching or out birding and see raptors, I really like to try to age and sex the individual birds I see, whenever possible. When I was down in Florida last week, I was fortunate enough to see one of North America’s most beautiful raptors, the Crested Caracara. My girlfriend Anna and I would go out everyday searching for nesting caracaras as part of a project she is working on in Florida. This offered me the chance to see lots of Crested Caracaras, up close and personal.
Crested Caracaras cannot be sexed in the field. Like most raptors, the male is slightly smaller than the female, but in the Crested Caracara, the size difference is not noticeable enough to be reliable, even when a male and female are sitting next to each other. However, Crested Caracaras can be very easily aged. Crested Caracaras are very social and can often be found in rather large congregations, so that makes it a little easier to see the difference between the ages when you are out caracara-watching.
There are 3 phases that Crested Caracaras go through as they get older. Their first plumage type is known as the “juvenile” plumage, which they show from the time they leave the nest, till they they are one year old. The second plumage type is known as the “sub-adult” (or Basic I) plumage. This is shown on a bird that is in its second year of life. Finally, when the bird is three years old, it attains its “adult” plumage. Below are some photos I took of Crested Caracaras in each of their plumage types and an explanation of how to tell their ages in the field.
The first photos show a juvenile caracara. Notice that the darker parts of the bird are overall a brownish coloration. The lighter areas on the neck/face and undertail coverts are a buffy, dirty looking coloration. Also note, the bird’s legs are grayish in color. Furthermore, notice that the buffy coloration on the neck fades into the brown coloration on its breast, with quite a bit of buffy feathers throughout the breast – overall giving an appearance of vertical streaking. This streaking is also shown down the back of the caracara. Finally, the coloration of the skin on a juvenile bird’s face is pale pink or gray (depending on the bird’s mood).
The next set of photos show sub-adult caracaras. This phase of the birds continues to show the chocolate-brown coloration in the darker parts of the body and the buffy, dirty looking in the lighter areas. However, notice how the area where the buffy neck color meets the darker breast. In a sub-adult bird, this area shows horizontal barring rather than vertical streaking like you would see on a juvenile. This barring is also shown on the back of the bird, as shown in the second photo. Also, the facial skin is a much richer pink color and the legs and feet are a bright yellow. NOTE – the bird in the first photo is showing an extended crop (yellow sack on throat) because it has recently eaten.
These next photos show adult caracaras. The most obvious difference right off the bat is that these birds are no longer chocolate-brown, but instead very dark black. The lighter areas are crisp and clean white in color. The horizontal barring on the breast is similar to the sub-adult. The facial skin is a bright reddish-orange coloration (although it can change a bit with the bird’s mood) and the legs and feet are a bright yellow (almost orange) color.
These next photos show some photos of different ages alongside each other. The first photo shows an adult flying alongside a juvenile. The adult is on the bottom and the juvenile is on the top. Note the vertical streaking on the breast of the juvenile and the chocolate-brown color, the pink facial color, and the gray legs. In the adult, notice the black coloration, horizontal barring on the breast, the yellow legs, and the orange facial skin. NOTE – the adult is showing an extended crop (the yellow sack on its throat) because this bird had just finished eating.
This last photo shows a sub-adult and a juvenile perched together in a tree. The sub-adult bird is at the top and shows the horizontal barring on its breast. The juvenile bird, on the bottom, shows the vertical streaking. The leg color of these ages is different, but this photo was shot in a poorly lit condition (overcast and raining) so you can’t see the gray vs yellow color difference well.
Hopefully this post was informative and will help you age Crested Caracaras whenever you might be down in Texas or Florida birding. All these photos are copyrighted by Alex Lamoreaux and cannot be used without written permission. To view more photos I took of Crested Caracaras, visit this link.