Strange times are these in which we live

Popeye’s Dumpster + Halal Meat Market = Yellow-headed Caracara in Los Angeles

All rarities are not equal. Sometimes, a bird is found in a place so improbable that the biggest mystery is what in the wide world of sports the bird is doing there. The Snowy Owl we had in Los Angeles in December 2022 was one such bird. The wandering Steller’s Sea Eagle that has traveled since 2020 from Alaska to Texas and then to Newfoundland is another.

How these vagrants ended up out of place matters in a bunch of ways. If it escaped captivity as a pet, or as a falconry bird, or if it was sprung from a zoo like Flaco the Eurasian Eagle-Owl in New York City (may he rest in peace), it’s a fun curiosity. Same for those birds who (probably) hitched a ride on a cargo ship across the ocean. If it’s part of a group that was intentionally released (European Starling in the U.S.) or escaped captivity (parrots on Southern California), it might lead to a sustaining population. If it is naturally occurring–that is, if it flew on its own–it creates questions for science. Was it moved by a big storm? Is it out of range because of food stress, or habitat loss, or climate change? Is it a species that is thriving and expanding its range?

My first, distant, fuzzy look of an out-of-place raptor

We had one of those improbable birds in Los Angeles in April when a Yellow-headed Caracara was found dumpster diving behind a Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. Yellow-headed Caracara are a South American raptor that is a regular as far north as Costa Rica. That’s a long, long way from Hollywood. And yet, a Yellow-Headed Caracara spent a winter in Humboldt County, California in 2007-08. Another has been around Miami, Florida for two years (and is still there). Did this L.A. bird fly here on its own? Did it hitch a ride on a tanker going through the Panama Canal and disembark at nearby Long Beach harbor? The answer is almost certainly unknowable. That’s a bummer for those obsessed with their official list. Like the Snowy Owl, it probably won’t be considered “countable”, at least for now. But my list is my list, and it doesn’t play by the birding police rules. As I’ve said before, if a bird can survive for more than a week, however it got there, its counts on my list. 

So it was with a mixture of wonder and joy that I headed out to see the caracara. When I showed up at the Popeye’s parking lot, there were a half dozen birders, but no caracara. It had apparently been there before I arrived, and flew off to the west. So I went walking the neighborhood to the west (between sitting and wandering, I’m a wanderer). After a half hour, I found the Yellow-Headed Caracara. First, I saw a raptor fly in from the northwest and dip down behind a house. I walked down the street a bit hoping for a view, and found the caracara perched on a utility pole. Some crows were harassing it, and it flew to the cover of a big tree. I alerted the birders via WhatsApp, and a couple of folks scurried over to see it. The views at this point weren’t good. But the bird was calling occasionally, a loud screech. After 20 minutes or so without the bird moving, I left. It eventually made it back to Popeye’s, waiting for dumpster eats and looking for hand-outs. Two weeks later, it is still there.

It’s a wonder that more birds don’t hang around dumpsters and fast food parking lots. They’ve got to be reliable sources of food, and for scavengers like caracara or vultures, they’d seem to be prime targets. Apparently, the L.A. caracara had been around for at least 3 weeks before the birding world discovered it. Curious to see how long it remains.