- 62 species in the Neotropics
- DR personal total: 21 species (34%), 4
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
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
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).
For the moment I retain them in the Cotingidae but it may be that one
or both are actually better placed in the Tityridae, or 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.
Photos: 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 © 2007 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
- 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. Phylogenetics Evol. 40:
- 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.
Phylogenetics 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,
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