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Project aims to save rare bird, the caracara

The crested caracara, a falcon often called the Mexican eagle or Mexican buzzard, is endangered in Florida and federal officials hope to launch a recovery plan in a few months.

The caracara, the national bird of Mexico that adorns that country's national flag, also is native to Florida. It used to range through much of Central and South Florida.

Now, though, caracaras in Florida may number not much more than 500, according to experts working on the recovery plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Almost all of Florida's remaining caracaras _ distinguished by beaks that range from bright yellow to bright orange, cream-colored necks, black crests and bodies of tan and black _ are found now in just five counties north and west of Lake Okeechobee: De Soto, Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee and Osceola.

"We don't know how many there are," said Joan Morrison, a professor of biology at Trinity College in Connecticut, who during the 1990s spent seven years studying caracaras in Central Florida.

"The bottom line is the bird is still threatened because their habitat is still disappearing," said Morrison. "And the population in Florida is isolated from any other caracaras, so it's not like some others could come here if something happened to these birds."

Caracaras are dwindling in numbers in Mexico, too, though they seem to be surviving well in South America, she said.

In Florida, caracaras can be spotted in pastures south of Lake Placid, said Glen Woolsenden, an ornithologist with the Archbold Biological Station, a nonprofit research center in Highlands County.

Caracaras nest in winter, usually in cabbage palms, and are very territorial, said Nancy Douglass, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Most mornings, the birds can be seen around road kill.

They eat basically everything," Douglass says. "They eat scavenge; they catch their own prey, like snakes, mice, insects and fish. They get fish in the dry season when the wetlands dry up and fish die around the edges."

Tylan Dean, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, says goals of the federal caracara recovery plan include finding and mapping potential habitat to restore for the reintroduction of the birds and encouraging landowners through tax incentives or special recognition to protect caracaras through less intense farming near the birds' nesting sites.

Other goals include setting up rehabilitation centers for injured or sick caracaras and a program to release healed birds back into the wild, as well as finding out the basic biological needs of the caracara.

Caracaras also live in Texas, Arizona and Central America.

"It's a pretty bird," says Leo Cosce, owner of Camp Lester Fishing Camp on the Kissimmee River. "They like to eat dead meat. It's a bird that we certainly need to have around to take care of that problem."