The West Mexican Chachalaca—Best Known for Its “Song”

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Remember those tin noisemakers you used to twirl at New Years? Bright colors, horrible noise? When you wake up in Huatulco, don’t you just hear them all over again? That would be the call of Ortalis poliocephala, the West Mexican chachalaca—which is supposed to sound as if it’s saying its name, “cha-cha-la-ca.” You’ll have to decide on the noisemaker vs. the name. Not only is their call unmistakable, they’re very talkative. Mornings are especially good for call-and-response discussions of plans for the day. In case you missed the plans, activities are discussed at the end of the day.

If you’ve never heard a chachalaca, just click on this link: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Ortalis-poliocephala. That takes you to a range map with a red dot north of Manzanilla, where the good people at the biological station in Chamela have recorded many bird calls, including the West Mexican chachalaca. (Click on the red dot, then the name of the bird, and finally the play arrow, and you’ll be treated to 66 seconds of chachalaca conversation. Highly recommended if you’ve truly never heard it or are homesick for Huatulco. Otherwise . . .)

Related to turkeys, the Cracidae family includes fifteen species of chachalacas, with a few subspecies thrown in for good measure. Together, they range from Texas through Mexico and Central America, then down around eastern South America. The West Mexican chachalaca is endemic (i.e., found only in this region) to the Pacific coast from Jalisco to the western edge of Chiapas, in both dry and moist (loves those mangroves) subtropical and tropical forests. It’s been recorded at heights of nearly 8,000 feet (2,400 m)—Oaxaca de Juárez is only 5,102 feet (1,555 m) up.

It’s easy enough to hear the chachalaca, but not quite as easy to see it, because despite their size (adults are about two feet/65 cm. long), they rather plain and prefer to sit pretty high up in the trees, rarely coming down to earth (they do come down to eat dirt for the minerals). Dainty and agile they’re not, so it’s possible they stay in the tree canopy for safety reasons. The first sign might be a partial view of something gray moving around, looking more like a humongous squirrel than a bird.

Eventually you’ll get a view of the entire grayish-brown bird. Males and females look alike, with grey heads quite dark on top and eyes surrounded by a red, unfeathered area. Its belly is white, and the feathers at the base of its tail (“undertail coverts” for the ornithologists among us) are cinnamon-orange.

By nature vegetarians, the West Mexican chachalaca eats leaves, fruits, seeds, and flowers available in the tree canopy. However, if they’re in the mood, they’ll eat insects, and have been known to scarf down small reptiles and rodents.

All chachalacas are social birds, living in groups that comprise families (parents and previous offspring) or simply “friends”—groups stay together year-round, feeding together and sometimes joining other groups to make a large flock. They do form breeding pairs, and start with a short courtship that includes calling back and forth, mutual preening and feeding, and a bit of dancing/chasing. The pair usually comes down to earth for the courtship, and then proceeds to build the nest together.

Not the greatest housekeepers, their nests are usually messy platforms of twigs and sticks fairly low in a tree or bushes, but well inside a forest. They line the nest with softer materials (moss or grasses), and then the female lays and incubates two to three (occasionally 4) whitish eggs for 24 days. The hatchlings are “precocial”—they are relatively mature and mobile as soon as they pop out of the egg, so they can get out of the nest to avoid predators (raptors like falcons and hawks). They have baby feathers within a few days, and full adult feathers in three to four weeks. Both mom and dad babysit, covering the nestlings with their wings.

Is the West Mexican chachalaca a permanent feature of Oaxacan life? People do hunt them for food and sport, but their status is that of a “least concern species” on the “red list” of threatened species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). On the other hand, perhaps the greatest threat is from global warming; as temperature increases, ecological modeling predicts that the natural habitat of the chachalaca could be reduced by 6% to 38% depending on what scenario of climate actually occurs.

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