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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

National Bird of a Great Little Country: The Clay-Colored Thrush

Published 12/17/12

In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the third installment, written by Barry.

Last week Monica talked about one of the world’s most beautiful birds, the resplendent quetzal, national bird of Guatemala. Oh, how I remember the excitement of seeing my first one, as it flew low over the road in front of the Land Rover I was in as we drove up the rain-swept slopes of volcanic Mount Poas, Costa Rica, many years ago. And I remember all the more seeing the birds amid swirling cold fog and mist-filtered sunlight, perched on moss-festooned, vine-draped limbs amid the giant, maroon-colored bromeliads near the apex of Cerro del la Muerte, the “mountain of death,” in the middle of Costa Rica’s central mountain range. Good choice.

Ah, but Costa Rica, modest to the core, and truly deserving our respect for being about the most peace-loving, democratic and educated countries in all of Latin America, did not choose the resplendent quetzal for its own national bird, nor the heart-stoppingly beautiful species known as the lovely cotinga, nor the scarlet macaw nor rainbow-billed toucan nor any of a plethora of gorgeous tropical birds to be found there.

No, the national bird of Costa Rica is the clay-colored thrush, also known as the clay-colored robin, and formerly known as the Gray’s thrush, the Gray robin or the garden thrush, or, in Spanish, the Yigüirro. It was formally named, in 1838, after British ornithologist George Robert Gray. To visualize it, think of a bird the size, shape and habits of our own familiar American robin — so abundant in the parks and gardens of so much of temperate North America — and change its color to an overall softly buff-tan color on the breast, blending to a drab brown on the head, back, wings and tail. It is one of several very closely related and quite similar-looking species found throughout parts of Central and South America and the West Indies.

I first learned there even was such a species when I saw its picture, painted by the great American bird artist Don Eckelberry, in the venerable Audubon Land Bird Guide, by Richard Pough, first published in 1946, and discovered by me about a decade later. There I learned the bird had appeared as far north as the Rio Grande Valley. To the child I was in those days it might as well have been restricted to the back of the moon. Would I ever see one?

Fast forward to 1971, and my first visit to Costa Rica. Running across the lawn of a park in San Jose, the capital, were these birds, so like the robins back home, but a subtle tannish-brown color, warmly buff on the breast, darker on the back. A confession: I love these warm earth colors on birds’ plumage. And what surprised me as I later explored the forests, jungles and dry scrublands of Costa Rica was how many bird species were colored in various shades of brown, buff, sienna, tan and rufous. They had names like rufous mourner, ochraceous pewee and bran-colored flycatcher.

The tropical soil is often a rich reddish color, and it was as if the colors of the earth somehow suffused or otherwise influenced the color of so many birds, including wrens, woodcreepers and ovenbirds, tyrant flycatchers, gnatwrens and becards — many tiny and obscure and all so much plainer than the wildly bright-colored parrots, toucans, trogons, tanagers, motmots, manakins and other species we think of when we think of tropical American birds.

The clay-colored thrush is a lowland to mid-altitude species, encountered in close association with people, often found around banana, coffee or the edges of sugar plantations, in tiny farm yards and roadside hedges. The cup-shaped nest is often placed on a horizontal limb, where it lays three (sometimes four) bluish eggs heavily specked with reddish-brown. It sings pleasantly and quite frequently. Nesting tends to start with the beginning of the rainy season. There is not much migration, and the species is common, thus well-known, a familiar bird well chosen for its vaunted status as Costa Rica’s national bird, as friendly as the folks who live there.

Born Free USA salutes Costa Rica for recently outlawing both the use of its native fauna for the exotic pet trade and sport hunting, and we pay tribute to its national bird, the clay-colored thrush, and to the resplendent quetzal and all its other huge array of wildlife species, so well protected in the country’s extensive protected lands. A wonderful country filled with wonderful things.

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