By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We grew up the East Coast of the U.S., where the primary sounds of birds were sweet and melodious. Their songs marked the seasons. The chirping of robins meant spring was here. The summer was filled from sunup to sundown with trills and warbles of brightly colored goldfinches, cardinals, orioles, and the more somberly attired nuthatches. Fall was brought in by the songbirds flocking together and filling the trees with melodies as they prepared to fly south. And even in the coldest days of winter, tiny chickadees hopped around on snow-covered branches as they cheeped their little conversations.
Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to the noisy birds on the Oaxaca coast making a racket as their sounds punctuated the day. We simply don’t need an alarm clock in Huatulco. The chachalacas wake us as soon as the sun rises. Although they are large and heavy, resembling turkeys or overgrown quail, we heard them long before we saw them. Their name means “chatterbox,” but “clatterbox” would be more accurate. Their calls to each other sound like a metal spoon dragging along a washboard. And since they are clothed in feathers of various shades of browns and greys and hide out in bushes and trees, they can be frustratingly hard to spot even though they sound as if they are close enough to touch.
We first actually saw, rather than heard, chachalacas years ago in Santa Cruz driving on a street that ended in relatively dense and high vegetation. Seven or eight of them were comically hanging out on one tree, their combined weight dragging the branches almost to the ground. At first we couldn’t recognize them, since it was after sunset and they were very quiet. But our headlights disturbed one and he or she gave a loud cackle waking the others who called out in an affronted cacophony. We had no doubt that they were the infamous chachalacas who frequently woke us, so we felt justified in turning the tables. Their ability to hide must be an adaptation to being hunted and cooked. Reportedly their meat is very tasty, and said, of course, “to taste like chicken.” Of course, many wild creatures, including snakes, are said to taste like chicken. But we intend to continue using them as alarm clocks rather than dinner. (For more on this bird, see “The West Mexican Chacalaca – Best Known for Its ‘Song’,” in the July 2013 issue of The Eye.)
We are often amused in the late morning and afternoon by white-throated magpie jays. These noisy members of the crow family have bright blue backs, a long blue tail, white breasts, a distinctive black v-shaped bar that rings its lower neck, and a comical curly-cue black crest that bobbles around as it hops from tree limb to tree limb. Magpie jays seem to spend most of their time screeching at each other and squabbling over insects and seeds. The only time they seem to be quiet during the day is when they are by themselves or when they stealthily position themselves near an outdoor human dining area to swoop down and steal a piece of bread or tortilla chip. On the off chance that a human is fast enough to protect the food from the swooping magpie jay, they are likely to find a nearby perch and scream until the human gives up and tosses the desired food to the irate bird. Some outdoor restaurants on the Oaxaca coast, plagued by aggressive magpie jays, have hung curtains to discourage the little beggars. Although we appreciate not needing to fend off avian thieves, we miss being able to watch the reactions of other diners who suddenly realize that part of their meal has been converted into a magpie jay free-for-all.
Mexico has 22 species of parrots and macaws, so parrots are plentiful on the Oaxacan coast. There are three varieties named for the frontal patch right above the beak – white (Amazona albifrons), lilac (Amazona finschi) and orange (Eupsittula canicularis). The little fellow with the orange frontal patch and long tail is actually a parakeet. But all of them are mostly green. And when they are flying from tree to tree and squawking while in motion, it’s difficult to tell them apart. Our favorite time to watch parrots (and many other birds) is during the period right before sunset. The birds flock together and begin searching for a place to roost overnight. Whole treetops seem to blast into air, as the flocks soar and, as one, find another tree to occupy. This visual phenomenon repeats itself several times until, using unknown criteria, the flock settles down for the night. But each time the flock comes in for a landing the group conversation is close to deafening. The sunset brings out a cacophony of ear-splitting, hard, harsh avian sounds multiplied by up to a hundred or more voices.
Finally, the bird whose noise punctuates the quiet of day all day long and sometimes even at night, is the woodpecker. There are three local varieties of the woodpecker; the lineated, pale-billed, and golden cheek woodpeckers. But they are commonly heard more than seen – even though each has a splash of bright red on their heads. Their distinctive ra-ta-tat-tat as they pound away at tree trunks looking for insects to eat can be heard at long distances. So, although one looks for that flash of red in nearby trees, the woodpecker may be deceptively far away. We grew up with woodpeckers, albeit different varieties, most commonly the downy woodpecker, so their drumming was a familiar noise.
But the strident sounds of the chachalacas, magpie jays, and parrots, once startling and unfamiliar, have now become part of our cherished environment in Huatulco.