The victim was large, probably a deer, and the vultures crowding around numbered more than a dozen. I drove slowly, so as not to spook them. They appeared quite focused on their meal, so it was I who was spooked when one of the black-feathered creatures took flight right in front of me! He careened over my windshield and was so frightened by my face looking out at him that he lost his lunch! What a mess!
After a visit to the car wash in town, I returned home along the same road, and the vulture dinner party was still going on. Only now, there were some new faces in the crowd – birds with large bluish beaks and orange faces and white feathers on their heads and tails. They seemed bolder and taller than the Black Vultures (black skin heads) and the Turkey Vultures (red skin heads).
So, who is the vulture “wannabe” in the crowd? You probably know him as a Caracara, but he goes by many names including Crested Caracara, Mexican Caracara and Mexican Eagle. These names indicate that the Caracara has a crest which gives him the look of a Bald Eagle wearing a black cap. And, since Caracaras range from South Texas well into Mexico, it is reasonable to be labeled a Mexican species.
But the Caracara is neither a vulture nor an eagle. In fact, Caracaras do not even belong to the same family! Vultures and eagles are members of the hawk family. Caracaras are classed as falcons.
What an odd falcon is the Caracara! He does not hunt like a falcon, swooping in on its flying prey. Instead, he walks around on the ground, partaking of the occasional lizard or mouse. More often, he goes for the easy pickings of carrion. That’s why he’s found among the hunched shoulders of vultures, vying for his share (or more). And, unlike the vultures, he can actually pick up and carry off some of the kill in his beak, occasionally even in his talons. The weak-footed Black and Turkey Vultures must feed on the carcass where it lies.
At home that day, I entered a daily checklist of birds seen. We use an online checklist that has the species listed in scientific order. The birds are grouped into families in order of shared characteristics. This is the way most field guides show the birds. The ducks are all together, as are the hawk-like birds, the woodpeckers and so on. The online checklist, called eBird, is managed by Cornell University. Data are entered by observers worldwide and produces a valuable record of what is seen where.
eBird is handy for birders who are into “listing.” All I have to do is scroll down the list and enter the birds I’ve seen.
However, after I entered the two vultures, I scrolled down through a dozen or so hawk species, and prepared to note the Caracara I had seen. The box for it had been at the very end of the hawk family.
It was gone!
No box for the Caracara!
I was baffled. What had happened to the Caracara?
Then I went back to eBird’s Home Page. And there it was: Taxonomy Update—August 2012. The website warned that several changes in classification and official names were going on and that the list would be modified. This usually means some close species are “lumped” into one, or a species is “split” into two new species. This time, something bigger happened.
The entire family of falcons was ripped away from the hawk family and bumped in between the woodpeckers and the passerines (the small perching birds). Wow! This was indeed a major shift in bird classification!
Such change is not implemented willy-nilly. Strong scientific evidence for revision in the relationships of birds must be provided. In this case, a paper was published in Science Magazine in 2008 that revealed that the DNA sequences of falcons (and the Caracara) were very similar to those of the perching birds. What’s more, the DNA of the hawk group was quite different. Genetically, hawks and falcons are not closely related! To reflect this new information, the arrangement of the bird families in a checklist, and in field guides, is changed.
Soon, new editions of the bird field guides will be available. You will see several changes. The Caracara and other falcons will follow the woodpecker family. The parrot family will be inserted between the falcons and the passerines. The order will be different, of course, but all the birds will be there.