Friday, April 1, 2011

Costa Rica's Colorful Motmot Bird

I'm not much for bird watching.  It has just never interested me before.  Since moving to Costa Rica, however, I've had some free time to just lay outside on my future mother-in-law's hammock where I've actually enjoyed watching the visit of several intriguing little birds that seem to frequent her backyard.  One in particular really caught my attention because he landed on a branch of the orange tree right in front of me, and with his back to me, he turned his little head and just seemed to sit there watching me for what was probably 2 or 3 minutes.  This was just long enough for me to sketch him on the paper pad I had handy, and to make some notes about all the fascinating colors on his body.

I asked my boyfriend and mother-in-law if they knew the name of this bird, but neither of them had seen it before.  I started researching online it to try to figure it out, even though I had no real idea of how to search for the name of a bird that I knew nothing about. 

Finally, through creative search phrasing, Google led me to the name and pictures of my mystery bird.  It is known as the Turquoise-browed Motmot.  Below are two pictures of this lovely bird.

Turquoise-browed Motmot from the front (photographed by Leonardo C. Fleck)
Turquoise-browed Motmot from the back (Google Images)
Through further reading, I found out that this particular motmot is the national bird of both El Salvador and Nicaragua.  There are a couple ancient legends regarding why the bird is missing it's tail feathers, including a Mayan one which states that the motmot bird was the most beautiful bird in the jungle, which made him extremely haughty and arrogant.  He would never help the other animals in their daily duties. During that time a huge hurricane hit the land and all animals found shelter in the forest.  However, the proud motmot wasn’t paying attention to the alarm and, therefore, he wasn’t able to find any shelter. Due to the strong winds of the storm he lost part of the feathers in his tail, leaving only the distinctive racket-like tip.

Although some people think the bird plucks the feathers from its tail on purpose, the truth is that the tail feathers are very loosely attached and just fall off from mere exposure to the elements and routine preening.  Males use their beautiful long tails as a sexual signal to females, and the longer their tails, the more reproductive success they will have.  Both males and females will wag their tails like a pendulum in order to alert a would-be predator to the fact that they know they are being watched and to let the predator know that an attack would be futile.

Experts say that six species of motmots live in Costa Rica. They are said to make a very distinctive sound.  A commentator on wikipedia describes it as "nasal, croaking and far-carrying".  These birds also make their homes in the ground and most are rarely seen by humans.  That's why I consider it such a special treat to have glanced upon the motmot twice already, when neither my boyfriend or his mom, both of which have lived in Costa Rica their entire lives, can remember being graced with this bird's presence.  Who knows?  Costa Rica may actually turn me into an avid bird watcher after all!

Learn More About This Topic:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

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