Carrapateiros and capybaras

The gavião carrapateiro is an astounding bird. It goes by the name ‘Yellow-headed caracara‘ in English but I much prefer the literal translation ‘tick hawk‘.

Gavião carrapateiro – @juliano.fabricante

Brazil being extremely large, and the gavião carrapateiro appearing everywhere, it has a long list of aliases: caracará-branco, caracaraí, caracaratinga, carapinhé, gavião-pinhé, pinhé, pinhém, papa-bicheira, chimango, chimango-branco e chimango-carrapateiro e chimango-do-campo, and simply carrapateiro. These names, and pretty much anything I have discovered about any Brazilian bird, can be found on the wondrous Wikiaves website.

Surprisingly, while writing this I have just heard a tick hawk scream. But we’ll come to that.

I have to say that I have never loved birds of prey. Although spectacular in flight, I’ve never been drawn to their murderous ways and the idea of controlled power. I much prefer smaller birds like swallows, although I realise that they are just as murderous and are power under control but in a smaller package. Perhaps I feel less sympathy for the flying insects that swallows eat. And I worry less about my eyes when I’m around them.

I’ve seen and heard tick hawks here for a while, but didn’t really know how to go about identifying them from afar and with so many – in the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Rainforest) region of Brazil where I am, there are 70 species of birds of prey (including hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures and owls) – I didn’t really know where to start.

My first few identification attempts were non-starters but I finally managed to identify the birds from photos in flight on the website about Brazilian birds of prey ‘Aves de rapina Brasil‘ since the gavião carrapateiro has very distinctive pale stripes on its wingtips.

It immediately made sense of the areas where I had seen the birds before, in land near livestock.

Since putting a name to a scream, I have often seen pairs of gavião carrapateiro either in flight or perched in coconut palms. Their slightly chilling screech makes me run to the nearest window (if I am inside) and a quick scan of high trees will normally find them if they are not immediately visible in flight. Yesterday a scream took me to our back window where I saw a single gavião carrapateiro being escorted from the area by a pursuing arrow of eight angry smaller birds.

I assume they just accept the constant harassing and mobbing by smaller birds as part of life, just as said smaller birds must know that their chicks are always at risk from larger birds, even pretty ones like toucans.

They are known as ‘carrapateiros’ because they feed on ‘carrapatos’ (ticks) found on livestock like horses and cattle and wild animals like capybaras.

On one of our walks (where I attempt to wear out the little person and recoup at least a semblance of sanity) we happened to cross paths four times with a pair of gavião carrapateiro (I assume it was the same pair), seeing them once perched at the top of a tall palm, surrounded by suiriris (tropical kingbirds), once in flight being pursued by smaller birds, once at the very top of another tall tree and the fourth time flying over an open field being mobbed by other smaller birds.

So I have seen them being harried on a number of occasions, most memorably by a pair of tesourinha-do-campo (fork-tailed flycatcher in English although again I much prefer the literal translation ‘little scissors of the field‘), who may seem overly frivolous with their dapper coat and tails but who bear their Latin name ‘tyrannus savana‘ (‘tyrant of the savannah‘) with great pride. The smaller pair were taking it in turns to divebomb the carrapateiro which must have been quite painful since successful flycatchers must have a) great precision and b) very sharp beaks.

Even when I haven’t been able to dash to the nearest window or door, I’ve been appreciating the moments when I hear the carrapateiros call. Perhaps it is because I am reminded of the buzzards soaring on thermals over the valley where I grew up.

My fondness and respect for tick hawks had been steadily growing but I had never seen them actually removing ticks and was beginning to wonder what sort of animal would allow them to land nearby with that blood-curdling scream, let alone get close enough with those talons and great sharp beaks.

And then we were presented with a divine gift. A family of capybaras settled in some local marshland and our early evening walks (timed to avoid the sweltering heat and blinding light of the day) happened to coincide with their familial habits.

One day while we were doing our best to observe them surreptitiously (capybaras are protected wild animals but it is not unknown for people to hunt and eat them), I heard the distinctive scream and a pair of carrapateiros made their entrance, alighting on some branches with a good view, then circling down into the marsh, and landing next to the capybara clan.

I’m not sure which moment filled me with most joy – the first time we noticed the capybaras, a line of dark heads bobbing through the marsh with the largest waiting until all the others had passed to safety, or the delight of seeing the tick hawks arrive and begin their parasite removal therapy.

The capybaras didn’t seem at all put out by the screams, uttered as the birds approached the marsh then as they landed in a nearby tree. Then they quickly and quietly went about their business. Perhaps the capybaras are able to distinguish between the calls of different birds of prey. The carcará (‘Southern caracara‘) is listed as a predator of capybara young. Given that the tick hawk is a relative of the carcará, and that both bear the name ‘Caracará’ in different regions in Brazil due to their call, I would hope the capybaras remain constantly on their guard.

The gavião carrapateiro does not have the sheer presence of the hawk-eagle (which I described here after seeing them through my window). The literal translation of their names into English could be seen as similarly humiliating (although arguably ‘duck hawk‘ is worse than ‘tick hawk‘) and in any case whenever I have trouble remembering the name gavião-pato I call it the Karl Urban bird. While the carrapateiro is not even in the running for majestic-looking birds of prey, it is spell-binding in its way.

The spell unfortunately does not yet seem to work on my daughter, who now brings about the end of any contemplation or shaky long-distance filming with a combination of challenges and promises. Firstly she makes sure I have finished and then promises she’ll find me another beautiful bird to look at another time. Then she challenges me to a race, counts to 10 and sprints away.

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