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!)
In celebration of National Bird Day 2014, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special six-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some of his favorite avian species. Below is the first installment.
When I first visited tropical American forests four decades ago, I expected that a disproportionate number of birds would have gaudy, bright colors. Many do, but the majority of the smaller birds I saw seemed to be coloured in shades of tawny, rust, rufous, tan, and brown – the earth colours, often like the reddish soil underfoot. That would include the Royal Flycatcher (Onychorynchus coronatus), a small, reddish-brown bird, similar to so many other small birds in the neotropical jungles and forests, although one notices an oddly shaped head. A long beak seems to be almost equally counterbalanced by a similar length of feathers—a crest – sticking out from the back of the head. It is almost a “hammerhead” look. If you are close enough, or the bird is in enough light, you may notice that the folded crest is partly orange or red.
But the biggest surprise comes if you are fortunate enough to see what the bird can do with that crest. During breeding display, or when the bird is annoyed or defending territory, the crest is spread, fanned out. And, unlike the crests of all other small songbirds in Central or South America, it is lateral… It fans out from side to side, a bit like a Chinese fan. It is, close up, a strange and formidable display, highlighted by the bird often weaving back and forth through a 180-degree arc, neck extended and mouth slowly opened and closed to reveal its bright orange-yellow interior. The tips of the red crest feathers (orange in the female) are an iridescent metallic blue.
The bird has a huge range, all the way from southern Mexico to south-eastern Brazil, and from the Pacific coast of Ecuador east to the Atlantic. But there are gaps in that range, and distinctive subspecies have evolved, isolated from other populations. Whether or not these should be treated as separate species is a concern only of the scientists; to the rest of us, they are too similar to think of as anything other than one species, and an unmistakable one at that.
In celebration of National Bird Day, we are featuring, along with parrots (commonly seen in captivity), a few members of the family Tyrannidae: the Tyrant-flycatchers, who are almost never seen in captivity because they can’t normally survive on artificial diets. Bird-catchers are usually indiscriminate, so any of these little flycatchers netted for the exotic bird industry will likely starve long before reaching the shipping boxes. Royal Flycatchers, typical of the family, eat flying insects. This species tends to specialize on dragonflies, damselflies, leaf-hoppers, and other larger species.
The female alone builds the elongated, pensile nest out of various plant materials. It has a side entrance to an open chamber and is often suspended a few meters above the ground or over a stream, like a tangled clump of rotting vegetation. Two eggs are laid, and the female appears to, alone, tend to incubation and feeding chicks. But, not a whole lot is known about the family life of this little-known, but fascinating, species.
And, one of this year's National Bird Day posters features a most brilliant male flycatcher, whose crest is fanned out to help draw attention to the poster and thus the celebration on January 5. Order or print yours today and help us spread the word.