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Crested Caracara Visits Vermont, Thrills Birders

A large black and white bird in a tree.
Sarah Carline, Courtesy
The crested caracara in Woodstock, Vermont.

Acrested caracara has been attracting attention and turning heads in Woodstock over the past couple of days. It's an impressive bird with a range that ordinarily includes Central and South America. To see it in the United States outside of the Deep South or Florida is rare, so this specimen has Vermont birders thrilled.

Nathaniel Sharp of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies was the first to identify the bird. He spoke with VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First of all, can you describe this bird for us? How big is it? What's the plumage like?

Nathaniel Sharp: So if people are familiar with a red-tailed hawk, it's around that same size. It's a really striking bird. It has a bright orange bill and facial skin. And it's also got a cool sort of, coiffed haircut, where it's got this black crest on its head. Then the rest of its plumage, it's a very black and white bird. So it stands out really well on some of the snowy winter trees of Vermont.

Did you identify it right away?

The identification of this bird isn't really in question. There isn't really a single species that looks like this anywhere in the United States, let alone Vermont. The question was, what is it doing here?

This is a bird that has potentially turned up once before in Vermont. There was actually someone who reported one from their backyard in Alburgh back in 2018. We're still trying to verify that report. But there are other reports of this bird species turning up in places as far north as New York and Maine and even Nova Scotia. So it is extremely unusual to see up north, but at least in recent years, we've been seeing a pattern of these birds turning up in extremely unusual places.

Do you have any theories about why it's here, so far out of its normal range?

That's a big question. So these birds are actually non-migratory. So it's not like this bird was migrating and got blown off course or ended up in the wrong area. There is a pattern of some of the younger birds of the species that tend to wander when they're looking for a place to settle down. But this is an adult bird. So ... that raises questions of what it's doing so far away from where it's should be, either in Mexico or Arizona or Texas.

And is it dangerous for this bird to be here, especially when it's still winter here?

I'm very glad that this bird turned up when it did, because if it had turned up in January or February, it would have been in for a very long, rough winter. But these are fairly hardy birds. They're used to southern climates, but I think this bird should manage to hang on until spring if it chooses to stick around that long.

My other question would be then: Does it want to be here? Is its presence a sign that something may be wrong with this bird?

Birds do fly and can turn up almost anywhere. And sometimes this is a way that birds expand their ranges. For example, birds like the northern cardinal, the tufted titmouse that people are familiar with in Vermont, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, were extremely uncommon visitors.

So this could be a bird that is slowly expanding their range. It seems a little far-fetched for that, given how far away it is from its range. But birds of all species do tend to make randomly long flights to other places just to explore new areas. And as far as I can tell, this bird does seem to be feeding here. I saw it feeding on a striped skunk for a little while on the on the side of the road. So it's finding enough roadkill to survive on and potentially could stick around for a little while longer.

Could this have something to do with climate change?

So those birds I mentioned earlier, the northern cardinal and the tufted titmouse, along with things like the red-bellied woodpecker and the northern mockingbird, those are birds that we have been seeing move north with climate change. These one-off instances of birds ending up very, very far from their home range generally aren't associated with climate change, and are more associated with the sort of individual variation and brain chemistry of certain birds. While climate change can definitely impact the ranges of some birds, mostly that's in short jumps and very slow movements over time of entire populations, not these individual flights of birds to random places like Vermont or Nova Scotia. 

Are you a birder? How much attention is this getting in the birding community?

I do consider myself a birder. I've been birding ever since I was a young kid around 8 or 9 years old. And this is definitely getting a lot of attention in the Vermont birding community. As soon as I was able to get out and take some photos of the bird and document it, I sent that report out to the Vermont Birding Facebook page, as well as the "Vermont Birds" email listserv and that sort of got a lot of birders involved.

Within the hour, there were people driving from all parts of the state to come see this bird. There are even a couple of visitors from Massachusetts that came all the way up to see this bird. So as word gets out, more and more people, I think, will be coming to visit this bird.

What do you think happens next? You think this bird might stick around? 

That's a great question. So I know, currently as we speak, there are birders out in the field looking for this bird, trying to pin it down so that we can figure out exactly where it is, what it's doing and see how long it stays. I have a feeling this bird might be moving on. If there's a nice day with blustery winds, these birds can move extremely long distances. So there's a chance this bird could turn up in New Hampshire, Maine, if it decides to leave. Or it could start heading south. Who knows?

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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