a web page by Don Roberson
COTINGAS Cotingidae
  • 62 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 21 species (34%), 4 photo'd

One of most interesting groups in the Neotropics are the Cotingas. There is such color, such diversity, just so many absurd birds that I think of them as the "birds-of-paradise" of the New World. The most spectacular of all may be the two species of cock-of-the-rock, both living in lush subtropical forests, one in the Andes and one on the Guianan plateau. Shown here (left), in a great James Ownby photo, is a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. Males display in leks to much drabber females; a fabulous paper on the display of the Guianan species is in Trail (1985). I rank both cock-of-the-rocks as among the "50 Best Birds in the World," and seeing them in the wild is a major highlight of any South American trip.

Back in 1975, a group of us worked for days in Colombia to see just one single male — and even then only Van Remsen and I, out of our group of a dozen, were lucky. Things have changed now: there is even a lodge in Peru called "Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge" that is in easy walking distance to a lek — and Ownby took this photo there. But even if things have changed and this is a lot easier to see than it used to be, a male cock-of-the-rock is still among one of the world's most impressive birds.


There is still some uncertainty over the limits of the Cotinga family (see below) but let's examine the "core" cotingas. If I may ramble on about the parallels with birds-of-paradise, I see additional similarities. There are all-black BOPs, such as the manucodes, and there are all-black cotingas, including fruitcrows and umbrella-birds. An example is the Purple-throated Fruitcrow (right); although backlit against the canopy of the forest, perhaps you can discern the wash of deep violet at the throat.

It is theorized that when birds evolve in a habitat that has an abundance of food, especially an abundance of fruit, some may evolve lekking behavior wherein gaudy males spend most of the year displaying the females (who, in the tropical climate, are not tied to seasonality for nesting), and this female choice for mates can evolve spectacularly ornamental males. This explains the gaudy BOPs, and perhaps explains Cock-of-the-Rocks, or the spectacular set of seven blue or purple cotingas (in the genus Cotinga), or the striking black-and-red species such as Black-necked Red Cotinga Phoenicircus nigricollis — also among my choices as one of the "best birds of the world" — or its relative, the Guianan Red Cotinga P. carnifex, or Crimson Fruitcrow Haematoderus militaris or Red-ruffed Fruitcrow Pyroderus scutatus. But others in the lineage evolve quite different breeding systems. The Purple-throated Fruitcrow, for example, lives in small parties of 3-8 birds, presumably related, and all attend the single nest. So much tropical forest — so many strategies!

In contrast to the all-black cotingas, several cotingas are essentially all-white, including Yellow-billed and Black-tipped Cotinga, Carpodectes antoniae and hopkei, respectively, and the Procnias bellbirds are predominately white. Among them is Bearded Bellbird of northern South America and Trinidad. In my photo (left) it is giving its loud and very distinctive call: an explosive, metallic "bock!" Similar hammer-like calls are given by all four species of bellbird. Each is a great find within its limited habitat. Males give these advertising calls from high in a treetop, and, if I can use my analogy again, rather like very specialized birds-of-paradise, where females mate with the calling male on the best perch (e.g., Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, Wallace's Standardwing). The unique Capuchinbird Perissocephalus tricolor of eastern Venezuela and the Guianas has a similar, elaborate mating system with males calling and display high in the subcanopy of tall rainforest.

Some cotingas are very drab in appearance, including the 9 pihas (in two genera). The voice of the Screaming Piha (below left in another Arthur Grosset photo) IS the voice of the South America lowland rainforest. It is so loud and explosive that it becomes almost annoying to a birder: a semi-ventriloqual "weee, wee, weee-ah!" Ridgley & Tudor (1994) say that is is "perhaps the best-known sound of Amazonia (it is a familiar background sound even on movie soundtracks), and it carries so far that in many regions one is almost always within earshot." The bird itself, though, is extremely hard to see in the leafy canopy. Other well camouflaged cotingas are the ten fruiteaters (Pipreola), most garbed in exquisite but non-conspicuous greens, and two berryeaters (Carpornis), black-hooded above brown-and-yellow bodies.

There are a few cotingids that do sit out in the open, including the Red-crested Cotinga of the high Andes (above right). It incorporates some flying insects into its diet, and snaps both fruit and bugs during short sallies. Most of the "core" cotingids are primarily fruit-eaters. Some of these cotingas are very rare and endangered, including the recently discovered Chestnut-bellied Cotinga Doliornis remseni of the central Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Incidentally, it is named for one of my early mentors, Van Remsen.

There had been much uncertainty about the composition of the Cotingas, and especially since some "difficult" groups seem to show some cotingid characters but also have similarities to Tyrant Flycatchers or Manakins. Included in this "difficult" group were "traditional" cotingids such as purpletufts (genus Iodopleura) and Shrike-like Cotinga, sometimes called Elegant Mourner (Laniisoma elegans), as well as Schiffornis mourners, becards, and tityras (e.g., Prum & Lanyon 1989, Sibley & Ahlquist 1990). Recent molecular evidence has proved that most of these "difficult" taxa are members of a new family, the Tityridae (Ericson et al. 2006). This leaves the rest of the Cotingas as a solid monophyletic group (Ohlson et al. 2007).

There are at least two remaining enigmas that need biochemical evaluation: Kinglet Calyptura (Calyptura cristata; once thought extinct but recently rediscovered and then it disappeared again!) and Swallow-tailed Cotinga (Phibalura flavirostris). Recent molecular work suggests the Kinglet Calyptura is a tyrannid, so I've moved it to the Tyrannidae (as have SACC). For the moment I retain Swallow-tailed Cotinga in the Cotingidae but it may be that is is better placed elsewhere.

The world of the cotingas is vast and wonderful and full of marvels, some of them with as yet little explanation. A fabulous introduction is in either of the monographs by David Snow (1982, 2004). I hope to have the opportunity to search out many more of them. Of all the families in the world, several groups of suboscine passerines seem, to me, to be the "heart" of the tropical rainforest. In the Old World it is pittas and broadbills; in the New World it is cotingas and manakins. Each successful encounter is a memory to be treasured.

: James Ownby photographed the male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruvianus on 15 Oct 2001 near Cock-of-the-rock Lodge in Peru. The Purple-throated Fruitcrow Querula purpurata was on Pipeline Road, Panama, in Jan 1981. the calling Bare-throated Bellbird Procnias averano was at Asa Wright Nature Center on Trinidad on 23 Dec 2006. Arthur Grosset photographed the Screaming Piha Lipaugus vociferans at Thaimaçu Lodge, Pará, Brazil in April 2003. The distant shot of Red-crested Cotinga Ampelion rubrocristatus was near Cusco, Peru, in June 1987.

  Photos are © James Ownby, Arthur Grosset, and Don Roberson, as indicated; used with permission, all rights reserved.

More evocative shots from James Ownby's South Americas trip are on his web site (see particularly his Ecuador and Peru travel diaries), and many more fine Arthur Grosset photos are on his web page (he particularly features South America).

Family Book — Rating:
Snow, David W. 1982. The Cotingas. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

This is one of my all-time favorite family books, and I only withhold a "5 for 5" rating because it is now quite dated, and because I prefer paintings with single species and its habitat on each plate. Tons of research on this group, both biologically and genetically, has occurred since the early 1980s. The book covers the 65 "core" cotingas — without various other groups that are sometimes included within the family. David Snow is regarded as the world's authority on this group, and he writes well. This slim volume has extensive introductory chapters on the origin of the group, its taxonomic and scientific history, and on their displays and annual cycles. The species accounts are enlivened by oversized maps (compared to what we are used to) that include a lot more information than typical, and very nice color plates by Martin Woodcock. I regret that they have 2-5 species per plate, and therefore lack a full evocative background, but the branches he does paint have rich moss when appropriate.

Literature cited:

  • Chesser, R.T. 2004. Molecular systematics of New World suboscine birds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 32: 11-24.
  • Dickinson, E.C., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Ericson, P.G.P., D. Zuccon, J.I. Ohlson, U.S. Johansson, H. Alvarenga, and R.O. Prum. 2006. Higher-level phylogeny and morphological evolution of tyrant flycatchers, cotingas, manakins, and their allies (Aves: Tyrannida). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 40: 471-483.
  • Johansson, U.S., T.J. Parsons, M. Irestedt, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2001. Clades within "higher land birds," evaluated by nuclear DNA sequences. J. Zool. Syst. Evol. Research 39: 37-51
  • Ohlson, J.I., R.O. Prum, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2007. A molecular phylogeny of the cotingas (Aves: Cotingidae). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 42: 25-37.
  • Prum, R.O., and W.E. Lanyon. 1989. Monophyly and phylogeny of the Schiffornis group (Tyrnnoidea). Condor 91: 444-461.
  • Prum, R.O., N.H. Rice, J.A. Mobley, and W,W. Dimmick. 2000. A preliminary phylogenetic hypothesis for the cotingas (Cotingidae) based on mitochondrial DNA . Auk 117: 236-241.
  • Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.
  • Snow, D.B.. 2004. Family Cotingidae (Cotingas), pp. 32-108 in Del Hoyo, J. Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 9. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  • Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
  • Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil: A Natural History. Translated from Portuguese by W. Belton. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • South American Checklist Committee. 2007. On-line; Remsen et al., eds. A subcomittee of the American Ornithologists' Union.
  • Trail, P.W. 1985. A lek's icon — the courtship display of the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock. Amer. Birds 39: 235-243.

Page created 8-9 Dec 2004, revised 4-6 Nov 2007 and 7 Apr 2018




all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved