Just as the song says, “sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.” I was innocently driving my shiny new pick-up down a rural road when out of nowhere a crazy vulture swooped down and crashed into the quarter panel. All I saw in the rearview mirror were fluttering black feathers, a new mangled roadside meal waiting for wiser vultures, and a sizable dent in my truck. As I wrote the check to the body shop I began to reflect upon road kill and the avian community.
It seems that there is a hierarchy of birds vying for the right to road kill. One can sit by and observe the competition for the rotting carcass if you have too much time on your hands, or if like me, you are a little “bird-addled”. My observations lead me to suggest this hierarchy arranged in order of increasing aggression: Crows and Sea Gulls, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracara as “King of the Road Kill”. Eagles also fit into this scheme somewhere but are not as frequently seen at the roadside.
Earlier this week I noticed a dearth of good Caracara shots in my photo library so I headed to the best place in southwest Florida to correct that, the wide open flatlands along Oil Well Road in Collier County. The stately and dashing bird is often seen there perched on a fence post or lording over road kill. I was not disappointed.
The name “Caracara” is derived from the sound of their harsh rattling call. Our crested northern species, also called a “Mexican Buzzard”, is most commonly seen along our southern border and into Mexico, Central, and the northern parts of South America. The very similar Southern Caracara is found from northern Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego. Caracara belong to the Falconidae family but are quite different from other swiftly flying falcons. They, instead are sluggish scavengers, finding most of their dead or dying prey on foot.
Caracara are found exclusively in the New World. In addition to the genus “Caracara”, there are four other genera of caracara. The dissimilar Chimango Caracara belongs to the genus “Milvago”. These pictures of the Southern and Chimango species are courtesy of Andy, my esteemed colleague, world traveller, and bird photographer par excellence, who just returned from Patagonia.
Oil Well Road extends due east, away from the settled gulf coast and into “Old Florida”, the land of the endangered Florida panther, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and also the Crested Caracara. After years of exploration Humble Oil Company finally drilled a producing well here in 1943, but there are no wells obvious to me along the road today.
Some of the road is a new divided highway with most of the traffic heading to Ave Maria University. This college town is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza. The growing conservative Catholic university and surrounding town were literally built in the middle of nowhere, but seem to be growing as they celebrate their 10th anniversary this year. Stop in there for a birder’s lunch and check out the impressive church in the center of it all.
East of Ave Maria the traffic drops off and the road reverts to its two-lane rural character. Wide grassy shoulders allow the birder to pull over and scan the roadside ditches for waders and alligators. Wood Storks and Red-shouldered Hawks are plentiful here and you may catch sight of a Roseate Spoonbill. It’s also where you’re apt to find the road kill and observe the avian clean-up crew at work.
The Turkey and Black Vultures will not win many beauty contests but are perfectly adapted to their niche as scavengers. The Turkey Vulture has an exquisite sense of smell and can detect that “dead skunk in the middle of the road stinking to all high heavens” from thousands of feet of elevation. In fact the Black will often follow the Turkey Vulture to the carcass and then, being the more aggressive of the two, will chase its red-headed cousin away. That is, until the Caracara moves in and displaces them both.
A perfect meal for a vulture is carrion that has been dead several days. This allows the flies and maggots to tenderize the meat. The scavenger’s strong gastric acid neutralizes the contaminating bacteria, and their featherless heads allows for effective clean-up after the meal.
You won’t find Oil Well Road listed as a birding hotspot for south Florida, but don’t let that deceive you, especially if you are seeking the Crested Caracara. Just be sure to pull far off the pavement onto the grassy shoulder to give those screaming 14-wheelers a wide berth. And also, watch out for the lurking gators in the ditches. They may look like they are sleeping in the hot sun, but could also be lying in wait for their next meal.