CURASSOWS & GUANS Cracidae The guans, curassows, and chachalacas (together known as cracids) are an ancient family whose closest relatives may be the megapodes of Australasia. The oldest fossil cracid is from 50 million years ago in what is now Wyoming. Today, cracids are exotic, elusive, and sometimes spectacular denizens of steaming lowland jungles, misty cloud forests, or arid scrub woodland. They are much more arboreal than other types of large gamebirds (such as pheasants or quails or megapodes) and while they often feed on the ground they typically roost in trees. Their presence often includes the existence of a truly wild place -- a wilderness where man has not hunted yet out the big gamebirds. Perhaps no birds are better indicators of Neotropical wilderness than the big cracids. It is always a treat to be someplace where an early morning glimpse of a guan or curassow can still be reasonably expected. One such place is the Brazilian Pantanal where in one early morning drive I photographed for the car window a Chestnut-bellied Guan (left or above) and a female Bare-faced Curassow (right or below).


Especially prized are the really big curassows in the genera Mitu, Pauxi, and Crax (Bare-faced Curassow is a Crax). Rita and I spent a week at Rio Cristalino Lodge in the heart of Amazonian Brazil a couple years back, and one of the absolutely highlights of that visit were early morning boat rides (just us and a boatman) in which we drifted up close to gigantic red-billed, black-bodied Razor-billed Curassows Mitu tuberosa. The deep haunting voices of this group are also special. I recall hearing about the Nocturnal Curassow Nothocrax urumutum whose guttural "hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo" cries were only heard after it is fully dark and that are virtually impossible to see day or night. For some years it was the late, legendary Ted Parker's "most wanted bird;" I know he did see several eventually. More recently, I have read of tours that even located this chimera.

There is a great family book for the cracids: Jean Delacour & Dean Amadon's Curassows and Related Birds (1973). It is full of wonderful stories about the pioneer ornithologists and their field experiences with cracids. This makes for great reading when supplemented with spectacular full-page artwork by Al Gilbert & George Sutton. Today, one can still retrace some of these experiences in places like Rio Cristalino, Brazil. Experiences can include a Red-throated Piping-Guan (below left) launching itself from an emergent tree above the jungle canopy during an early morning boat ride on that black-water swiftly flowing Amazon Basin stream. This is true lowland wilderness. The best of all the cracids, though, may be the rare and local Horned Guan of cloud forests in Chiapas, Mexico, and adjacent Guatemala. One of my all-time favorite bird pictures (below right) is that painting by Albert Earl Gilbert of a Horned Guan from Delacour & Amadon (1973). Gilbert's painting evokes the crisp cool feeling of the mountain air and what must be the breathtaking experience of watching such a great bird. Many years ago Ted Parker told me of his first visit to El Triunfo (Chiapas, Mexico) in which he and a couple friends documented the first known youngsters of Horned Guan (details later published in Parker et al. 1976). It remains one of the "best birds" in the world for the globe-trotting field birdwatcher.


In April 1986, I joined a tour for a week's visit to El Triunfo, Mexico. This involves a three-day hike from the coastal Pacific lowlands to the cloud forest at 6000' elevation where we camped in tents. The entire trip was great for birds but it was a poor year for the Horned Guan. Only a couple folks in our trip had a pair fly across a trail in front of them; I never saw a single feather of this much-desired beast. [I will have to return someday; my friend Greg Lasley has led a series of successful tours there for VENT tours.] Despite missing Horned Guan, there were fine experiences that trip with Highland Guan Penelopina nigra. The guans seem to me to be much more arboreal than curassows, and most of those I've seen have been up in trees (often a fruiting tree). Several species are quite rare. The White-winged Guan Penelope albipennis of arid scrub in northwestern Peru was thought to be extinct until rediscovered in 1977. The Chestnut-bellied Guan (photo at top of page) is considered rare and local. The Alagoas Curassow Mitu mitu of eastern Brazil is surely extinct in the wild (a few remain in captivity). Because these are huge chicken-like birds, everywhere that man expands and develops in the Neotropics, the guans and curassows are among the first birds to disappear.

Although the guans and curassows take the headlines, a dozen cracids are chachalacas in the genus Ortalis. These tend to be lowland species and many are resident in arid thornscrub from the Rio Grande River of south Texas (Plain Chachalaca O. vetula is the species there) to the Pantanal of southern South America. There the local species is the Chaco Chachalaca (below). They, like all the chachalacas, travel about in noisy bands. Sometimes groups can be found feeding or roosting in large trees in the early morning, as was this particular bird.

All chachalacas are rather drab in plumage and they lack the fancy casques, strange bills, or head plumes of some larger cracids; they are thus considered the most primitive form of a cracid. But the loud rolling chorus of a band of onomatopoeic chachalacas is a happy sound of dry tropical mornings in their habitat.

As a family the Cracidae have numerous taxonomy issues of contention over species and generic limits. The various piping-guans Pipile, for example, have been all lumped together into one species or separated out into as many as six different species (for more details see del Hoyo 1994 who segregates the six taxa in Pipile into four species). The total of 50 species that I use here follows Clements (1991) and del Hoyo (1994).

Photos: The Chestnut-bellied Guan Penelope ochrogaster and the female Bare-faced Curassow Crax fasciolata, at the top of the page, and the Chaco Chachalaca Ortalis canicollis, at the bottom of the page, were all photographed from the edge of the Transpantaneira Highway (actually a long straight dirt road with dozens of rickety bridges) in the Brazilian Pantanal on the morning of 5 Aug 1999. The Red-throated Piping-Guan Pipile cujubi was along the Rio Cristalino in Amazonian Brazil on 13 Aug 1979. The great artwork of the Horned Guan Oreophasis derbianus is by Albert Earl Gilbert and published in Delacour & Amadon (1973); this photo of a page from the book doesn't really do justice to the arts. All photos © 2000 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

Family Book: HHHHH (out of 5 possible)
Delacour, Jean, and Dean Amadon. 1973. Curassows and Related Birds. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., New York.

This great work from 1973 is in the fine tradition of the best in family books. It is large format (9x12") with full page color paintings by Albert Earl Gilbert and George Miksch Sutton (but some paintings are composites of several species; I do not care for that arrangement and much prefer the single species painting of a bird shown in its native habitat). The text is by two renowned experts and dazzles the reader with stories of true adventure in searching out the world's cracids. While the data published are authoritative (an absolute must in a great family book), the stories and crisp writing is the point that pushes this volume into the five star class. [The only other family book on the same scale is Schodde's Fairy-Wrens with Weatherly's art.]
    It is now fair to say that the distributional details in this work from a quarter century ago are now dated. Up-to-date details on these points are found in more recent papers or summaries like del Hoyo (1994). The plumage, behavioral, and taxonomic information here, though, is still of much current value (although, again, more has been learned recently about the taxonomic implications of biochemical and other evidence). The introductory material on the family is excellent. For all these reasons (entertaining text combined with fine art showing the habitat of many species) I continue to highly prize this book although I recognize that it needs updating in many respects. For its time, however, it was a true classic.
    I have heard it will be re-issued with some new plates but perhaps not any new text. While I welcome having this volume in-print again, it would have been much preferable to have updated information.
Literature cited:
Clements, J. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check List. 4th ed. Ibis Publ. Co., Vista, CA.

del Hoyo, J. 1992. Family Cracidae (Curassows & Guans) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Parker, T. A., S. Hilty, and M. Robbins. 1976. Birds of El Triunfo cloud forest, Mexico, with notes on the Horned Guan and other species. Amer. Birds 30: 779-782.

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