Not just another pretty face

Crested Caracaras are handsome birds, with their regal posture and long legs, strutting around the pastures looking for the next meal.  They display a variety of facial colors, intended to signify not only their maturity but their mood as well.

crested-caracara-adult

Adult Crested Caracaras exhibit a bright orange-red skin above and behind the beak (called the cere), brilliant white neck feathers that end in checkered black and white, and a dark black crest and body feathers. 

crested-caracara-2nd year

Two-year old birds have more of a pinkish facial color, yellow-white neck feathers and brown rather than black crests and body plumage.

crested-caracara-juvenile and adult

First-year birds have a pale gray-blue cere, along with the same brown and white plumage of the two-year olds. It takes three years and several feather molts to arrive at the final adult plumage.

Color can be used as a signal of sexual or social status, and the bright orange facial markings along with the strong black and white accents of the plumage should enable an adult Caracara to dominate younger birds when there is competition for food. However, it seems there is more to the facial color than just age alone.  Social interactions between individuals alter the blood flow to the facial region, resulting in a variety of color changes that also indicate social status — dominant vs submissive.

crested-caracara-juveniles-and-adults

Blood flow to the face decreases in individuals under stress, leading to a paler color — e.g., yellow instead of bright orange in the adult in the distance, or pale pink instead of bright pink in the juvenile on the left of the image.

crested-caracara-and-harris-hawk

An adult Caracara attempted to steal part of the Harris Hawk’s meal, and apparently felt intimidated by the hawk because its facial color has faded to light yellow instead of bright orange.

6 thoughts on “Not just another pretty face

    • Thanks, Mike. It was fascinating to watch the interactions. I’m glad I had so many shots of them feeding to find those facial color changes.

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