A flying Southern Caracara showing the distinctive light 'windows' in the wings
It has a total length of 50"?65 cm (20"?26 in) and a wingspan of c. 120 cm (47 in). Individuals from the colder southern part of its range average larger than those from tropical regions. The cap, belly, thighs, most of the wings and tail-tip are dark brownish, the auriculars, throat and nape are whitish-buff, and the chest, neck, mantle, back, uppertail-coverts, crissum and basal part of the tail are whitish-buff barred dark brownish. In flight, the outer primaries show a large conspicuous whitish-buff patch ('window'), as in several other species of caracara. The legs are yellow and the bare facial skin and cere are deep yellow to reddish-orange. Juveniles resemble adults, but are paler, with streaking on the chest, neck and back, grey legs, and whitish, later pinkish-purple, facial skin and cere.
It can be separated from the similar Northern Caracara by its more extensive barring on the chest, brownish and often lightly mottled/barred scapulars (all blackish in Northern), and pale lower back with dark barring (uniform blackish in Northern). Individuals showing intermediate features are known from the small area of contact in north-central Brazil, but intergradation between the two species is generally limited.
A Southern Caracara being mobbed by a Fork-tailed Flycatcher
A bold, opportunistic raptor, the Southern Caracara is often seen walking around on the ground looking for food. Mainly feeds on carcasses of dead animals, but will steal food from other raptors, raid bird nests, and take live prey if the possibility arises (mostly insects or other small prey, but at least up to the size of a Snowy Egret). It is dominant over the Black and Turkey Vulture at carcasses. It is typically solitary, but several individuals may gather at a large food source (e.g. dumps). Breeding takes place in the Austral spring/summer in the southern part of its range, but timing is less strict in warmer regions. The nest is a large open structure, typically placed on the top of a tree or palm, but sometimes on the ground. Average clutch size is two eggs.
Range and habitat
The Southern Caracara occurs from Tierra del Fuego in southernmost South America north to the Amazon River region and southern Peru. An isolated population occurs on the Falkland Islands. It avoids the Andean highlands and dense humid forest, such as the Amazon rainforest, where it is largely restricted to relatively open sections along major rivers. Otherwise, it occurs in virtually any open or semi-open habitat and is often found near humans.
Throughout most of its range, it is common to very common. It is likely to benefit from the widespread deforestation in tropical South America. It is therefore considered to be of Least Concern by BirdLife International.