Thanks to its largely tropical climate, Central America plays host to an amazing cast of plants and animals. This biodiversity makes it only inevitable that some truly weird and wonderful animals are included in the mix. You might think that plain ol’ birds can’t compete in weirdness with tapirs or sloths, but you’ll see – birds are no exception to the strangeness. A lot of the diversity stems from the fact that food for birds is plentiful in the tropical rainforest, so females are looking for other abilities from their potential mates. As these ten birds reveal, their tastes can be…a little odd.
Central and South America are home to about 50 species of manakins. All of them have fascinating courtship rituals: the males select and clean a patch of forest to act as their own personal stage from which they perform hopping, jumping dances complete with clicks and groans for good measure. This method of selecting a display area to perform from is called lekking, and it’s common to all manakins, but one species does something even more intricate.
For Long-tailed Manakins (Chiroxiphia linearis), one dancer doesn’t quite cut it. These birds form dance troupes of two or sometimes even three male dancers. The males live and dance together for life, forming partnerships that last much longer than those with a female (with whom the deed is done, and that’s that). The elder teaches the younger male the right moves, and in return, the younger inherits the lek when his elder dies. The youngster has to play a serious waiting game, though: no matter how good his dancing, the older manakin is the one who gets to mate any interested females, no exceptions. It’s not until the student becomes the teacher that he gets to mate for the first time – if his dancing skills are deemed up to scratch, of course.
This oddball looks like he’s sporting a beard to rival Confucius, but those are actually three sacs of skin called ‘wattles’ hanging from his beak. Apparently, they’re part of his appeal, because come mating season, he wears them with pride. Male bellbirds (Procnias tricarunculatus) spend their days perched in high, exposed branches to get as much visibility as possible – not that they need it. They attract mates with a call that’s thought to be one of the loudest in the world, though you’d certainly never describe it as the prettiest. If you’re walking through the rainforest and you hear a sudden ‘bonk’ followed by an ear-splintering metallic screech, congratulations – you’ve found the bellbird.
With a face like a panda and the silliness to match, this bird’s name hints at its call. But don’t think the Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) is sharing a chuckle with you. There’s a biting sarcasm to their laugh that makes it very clear who’s the butt of the joke. And no wonder they laugh: while most of us struggle to catch a mouse in our kitchen, these powerful birds of prey specialize in hunting large, often deadly snakes. After spying out a juicy viper or rattlesnake from a perch, the Laughing Falcon will swoop down and pounce, biting the snake right behind the head and often ripping the head clean off. They proceed to grab the decapitated snake in their talons, fly up to a perch, and begin to delicately tear it to pieces. Yum.
You’ve probably heard of these in passing. Yes, the famous dancing Galapagos birds spend part of the year in Central America. The name booby actually comes from the Spanish bobo, meaning stupid or clumsy, which sums up how their mating dances look to our eyes. Before they get to the dance, though, males need to go foraging for a shapely stone. They present their stone to a female, and if she seems impressed, they proceed to tilt head and tail to the sky and stamp around with high steps, showing off those beautiful feet. Female boobies often inspect the feet closely and are believed to select the males with the brightest blue feet they can find.
It turns out it’s not just the males’ feet that matter, either. Most seabirds have a brooding pouch in which they store their eggs to keep them warm. Not so with the Blue-footed Booby. Instead, the female steps up on top of her eggs and spreads her webbed feet around them to keep them warm – a habit that makes for a rather endearing sight.
The toucan’s flamboyant bill makes it an icon of the American tropics, and the Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) is unquestionably the flashiest of them all. This oversized bill looks heavy, but it’s actually incredibly delicate: it’s made of nothing more than a protein layer on hollow bone. The bill is used to delicately pluck fruits from the treetops, throw them in the air, and gulp them down. That’s not all it’s used for, though. Toucans are not above bullying their way into the nests of other birds and gobbling up the eggs – or even baby birds – hidden inside.
Speaking of strange bills, the Brown-billed Scythebill (Campylorhamphus pusillus) surely has one of the most awkward. They belong to a class of birds called woodcreepers, which make a living joining what biologists call ‘mixed flocks’. These are large groups of birds composed of many different species – often ten or more – that all forage together, taking advantage of the fact that they all have slightly different hunting strategies. The scythebill’s chosen strategy is to start near the base of a tree and rapidly hop his way up the trunk, plucking delicious earwigs, spiders, and beetles out from underneath the bark as he goes. With a bill that long and drooped, though, you’ve got to pity how often he must turn his head to grab a bug only whack it straight into the tree. Evolution works in mysterious ways.
As you stop a moment to take in the beauty of the Ocellated Antbird (Phaenostictus mcleannani), you might be spared a few seconds to admire the view. But right about the time you’re pulling your camera out, the first bite will come. Quickly followed by several more. If you’re not careful, the vicious army ants (Eciton spp.) will rapidly climb your legs to deliver a slew of painful bites that let you know exactly what they think of you disturbing their raiding party. By the time you’ve recovered, the antbird – whose name suddenly makes much more sense – will probably be gone. Such is the way of the antbird, who spends his entire life following these army ant raids. It’s a good strategy; army ants are so fierce that everything from cockroaches to scorpions flees in terror at the sight of them. Flees in terror – straight into the path of the gleefully feasting antbird.
On the whole, bird names are dull, descriptive things. But not even biologists can deny the eccentricity of the umbrellabird (Cephalopterus glabricollis). This is another bird whose females have a lot to answer for in their definition of ‘attractive’. Male umbrellabirds have been shaped by evolution into possibly the dorkiest birds in existence. As if the awkward hairdo wasn’t enough, their bizarre courtship display seals the deal. That eye-catching red on the male’s chest is actually a throat sac that he inflates until it resembles a giant ripe tomato. Meanwhile, he makes sounds variously described as ‘grunts’, ‘deep chuckles’ and ‘dry coughs’ to increase his appeal. Whatever floats your boat, umbrellabird females.
Many bird nests are works of art, and we often can’t imagine how they lovingly craft such treasures with nothing but their beaks. Montezuma Oropendolas (Psarocolius montezuma) take this to the next level and are known as some of the best weavers of all the birds on earth. These birds don’t just build your average cup-shaped nest that sits in a tree fork. They take it a whole lot further, constructing enormous teardrop-shaped pouches of up to two meters in length. The inside is even lined with a soft layer of leaf fragments for the eggs to rest on. Oropendolas like to live together, so you often see 40 or more of these impressive basket nests hanging from a single tree.
The mysterious and secretive Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) breaks every rule in the bird book. They’re extremely hard to study, partially because of their habits: oilbirds are nocturnal and spend their days sleeping in large colonies inside caves, sometimes with several thousand cavemates. They wake around dusk and leave their homes to feed, using their excellent night vision and sense of smell to seek out fruits. If that sounds more bat than bird to you, you’re thinking along the right lines. What makes an oilbird absolutely unique in the avian world is one very batlike ability: oilbirds can echolocate, using ultrasonic clicks to navigate the forest at night.