a web page by Don Roberson
GNATEATERS Conopophagidae
  • 11 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 3 species (27%), 1 photo'd

The Gnateaters are plump, short-tailed, and long-legged birds of tangled forest undergrowth in South America. They "are elusive birds that occur in low densities" (Ridgely & Greenfield 2001). The nine species of gnateaters in genus Conopophaga are all cute, round birds of the forest floor. In their small size (just 4.5 to 5.5 inches in length), long legs, and upright stance, these gnateaters resemble very small antpittas. Most species are sexually dimorphic and males are quite striking. In all but one case the species have a white postocular tuft; agitated birds may flare these tufts.

When I first created this web page 20 years ago, I wrote that "given their scarcity and dark forest floor habitat, I doubt I'll ever photograph a gnateater." I did not then know that digital photography would change everything! Thus, in southeast Brazil in 2010, and with the help of famed Brazilian photographer Edson Endrigo, I actually photographed this Rufous Gnateater (left) inside a dark, dangled, wet forest.

Rice (2005a, 2005b) found that the species in the antpitta genus Pittasoma were not antpittas but a taxon sister to Conopophaga; therefore, Rice advocated inclusion of Pittasoma in the Conopophagidae. The South American Checklist Committee adopted that proposal, and, later, Batalha-Filho et al. (2014) confirmed the sister relationship between Conopophaga and Pittasoma, and the monophyly of each genus. Now, family Conopophagidae is composed of 9 species of gnateaters (genus Conopophaga) and two Pittasoma antpittas [Black-crowned Antpitta P. michleri and Rufous-crowned Antpitta P. rufopileatum].

Back in 1986, Peter Kaestner became the first birder to see a representative of every family in the world; the Gnateaters were his final family (Kaestner 1990). Of course, the list of bird families was somewhat different back then, and there were only 8 species of Conopophaga gnateaters in the family. At that time, the family was entirely restricted to South America. One of those species was Rufous Gnateater, which is local in eastern Brazil and northern Argentina. Peter described his experience this way:

"The rosy dawn of 1 October 1986 still glowed in the eastern sky of Argentina's Iguazu Falls National Park when I heard the distinctive churr. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that my most wanted bird was skulking in the bamboo tangle in front of me. I tried to mimic the sound as I peered into the dense undergrowth, and in an instant, a small brown bird appeared and vanished. The rufous color, wren-like shape, short bill, and white postocular streak all confirmed that the fleeting visitor had been the Rufous Gnateater, a member of my last unobserved family of birds. A shout of joy escaped me as the weight of a lifetime quest lifted off my shoulders" (Kaestner 1990).

Ridgely & Tudor (1994) says that Rufous Gnateater (another photo attempt, right) can be locally common in undergrowth of humid forest where individuals or pairs perch close to the ground, and forage on the ground. They sometimes follow understory flocks. "Sedentary and not very shy", they say, "at times even approaching a quiet observer." Sick (1993) explains that the distinctive churring sound is made by a modified flight feather on the wing. As the male flies around its territory it makes a mechanical buzzing that it can turn on and off in an instant. Because of this wing buzz, produced only around dawn or dusk, it "becomes one of the most conspicuous crepuscular birds, whereas during the day it passes almost unnoticed."

The northeastern Brazil population of Rufous Gnateater was split as a separate species early in the 21st century, as Ceara Gnateater C. cearae, named for the province in northeast Brazil in which the Serra de Baturité, its discovery site, occurs. Thus the initial eight gnateaters became nine (Whitney 2003, Rice 2005a).

This is Slaty Gnateater (left, in a nice photo by Kim Risen from Bolivia), a species of the understory of mossy mid-elevation montane forest in the Andes of southern Peru and Bolivia. Both sexes are dark gray with a brown cap; females also have an orangey face. The white head plumes can be raised when agitated, a trait shared by several other gnateaters.

Family status for the gnateaters had once been controversial. Meyer de Schauensee (1970) considered them to be a subgroup of antbirds during my early trips to South America, so I didn't think of them as a family back then. Sick (1993) also considered them distinctive but still just a subfamily of the antbirds. But Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990), relying on DNA-DNA hybridization evidence, upgraded them to family status. All recent authorities consider them a family (e.g., Ridgely & Tudor 1994, Ridgely & Greenfield 2001, Whitney 2003, Moyle et al. 2006, Batalha-Filho et al. 2014).

Most species in the Conopophagidae are Amazonian in distribution, but some occur in the subtropical zone of the Andes and, as noted above, there are gnateaters in the coastal forest of southeast Brazil and northeastern Argentina.

However, now that two Pittasoma antpittas are included within the Conopophagidae, the family is no longer entirely endemic to South America. Black-crowned Antpitta is the only member of the Gnateater family that occurs outside of South America; it resides in Costa Rica and Panama.

I have not yet seen a Pittasoma antpitta, but Carole Rose was able to capture this shot of Black-crowned Antpitta in the lowlands of Darién, Panama (right; © Carole Rose).

When I first created a web page on Gnateaters, not only did I lack any photo, but I had seen just one species — Chestnut-belted Gnateater — at La Selva Lodge in eastern Ecuador. Rita Carratello and I visited there in April 1992. So to fill space I penned a travelogue that read, in part, this way:
    "Visiting a remote Amazonian lodge is a wonderful experience. First one flies to Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, and then on to the riverside town of Coca. There the traveler is met by representatives of La Selva and transported two hours down the broad Napo River by motorized launch to a landing. Here the guest walks a boardwalk through riverine forest (porters carry the luggage) to a canoe landing on Garzacocha, a large blackwater oxbow lake surrounded by jungle. One is then paddled across the lake to La Selva Lode itself. The individual bungalows are pleasant and the food served in the group dining room was superb. Forest trails head mostly north; the broad main trail ends at Mandicocha, a smaller oxbow lake with many lily pads. A birder can spend days on the main trail itself — plus there is a canopy tower worth numerous visits — but the remote terra firma forest is on the other side of Mandicocha. We spent a whole day on this distant trail on the far side of Mandicocha with our guide, Fausto. He knew his birds and wildlife well, but it was good that Rita spoke some Spanish. We always seemed to be chasing something Fausto had just seen. For example, it was while we were looking for a Lanceolated Monklet that Fausto saw a Harpy Eagle grab a monkey from the canopy! [so we missed the Monklet and the Eagle attack by just a few moments.]
    My notes describe these highlights that we did see: a tawny-colored kinkajou in a hole in a dead tree which poked its head out when Fausto tapped on the tree; a tiny green viper curled up on a large leaf that extended over the trail (Fausto stopped me before a walked into the leaf); several male Wire-tailed Manakins; a Rusty-belted Tapaculo watched calling from a log; and "a really neat mid-sized, chunky, short-tailed antbird-looking-like bird, all chestnut (richest on breast) except for black lores, face & throat, and a very prominent white, broad, postocular stripe." I did a little field sketch that day which I filled in with colored pencil (right). That bird proved to be a Chesnut-belted Gnateater.
    "In looking back on my notes and sketch today (i.e., 'today' was in 2001), my impression is that the Paul Greenfield painting in Ridgely & Greenfield, which shows a richer chestnut-colored bird that the painting in Ridgely & Tudor (1994), better matches my field impressions." And my rough sketch does not capture the posture or shape of the little bird at all . . .  [Also, Whitney (2003) and others suggest that based on vocalizations, today's Chestnut-belted Gnateater might be split into several species.]


Photos: The photos of Rufous Gnateater Conopophaga lineata are from Intervales NP, Brazil, on 1 Aug 2010, and the second shot was a couple of days earlier, on 30 July 2010. Kim Risen photographed the Slaty Gnateater Conopophaga ardesiaca at Refugio Los Volcanoes, Bolivia, in Sep 2002. Carole Rose photographed the Black-crowned Antpitta Pittasoma michleri at Canopy Camp, Darién, Panama, on 27 Mar 2016. The field sketch of Chestnut-belted Gnateater Conopophaga aurita is from La Selva Lodge, Ecuador, on 7 Apr 1992.

      Uncredited photos © Don Roberson. Credited photos © Kim Risen and © Carole Rose, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Family Book:
Harold Greeney and David Beadle. 2018. Antpittas and Gnateaters. Helm Identification Guide. Blomsbury Publ., London.

I have not seen this book, except for excerpts available on Amazon, but it is favorably reviewed and the bits I saw were impressive. I wonder if this started out as an Antpitta book and was expanded to Gnateaters when Pittasoma antpittas were moved to that family? In any event it looks remarkably up-to-date, the color plate of Gnateaters that I saw was solid (art by David Beadle), and the range maps were of a large size, with all major Amazonian rivers shown, so they look quite helpful. The text in previous Helm Series guides has been well-researched (e.g., sunbirds), and this appears to meet that standard. It is, however, quite expensive. Perhaps this is because not only are there color plates, but also a good number of color photographs. I thank Murray Lord for drawing my attention to this new guide.

In addition, Ridgely & Tudor (1994) has a selection of species illustrated in color and a baseline research text, while Whitney (2003), in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series, provides an more extensive introduction to the traditional 8 gnateaters, along with some excellent photos.

Literature cited:

Batalha-Filho, H., R.O. Pessoa, P.-H. Fabre, J. Fjeldså, M. Irestedt, P.G.P. Ericson, L.F. Silveira, and C.Y. Miyaki. 2014. Phylogeny and historical biogeography of gnateaters (Passeriformes, Conopophagidae) in the South America forests. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 79: 422–432.

Kaestner, P. 1990. Filling in the families. Birding 22: 34–37.

Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1970. A Guide to the Birds of South America. Livingston Publ., Wynnewood, PA.

Moyle, R.G., R.T. Chesser, R.O. Prum, P. Schikler, and J. Cracraft. 2006. Phylogeny and evolutionary history of Old World suboscine birds (Aves: Eurylaimides). American Museum Novitates 3544: 1–22.

Rice, N. H. 2005a. Phylogenetic relationships of antpitta genera (Passeriformes: Formicariidae). Auk 122: 673–683.

Rice, N. H. 2005b. Further evidence for paraphyly of the Formicariidae (Passeriformes). Condor 107: 910–915.

Ridgely, R. S., and P. J. Greenfield. 2001. The Birds of Ecuador. 2 vols. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Ridgely, R. S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. 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.

Whitney, B.M. 2003. Family Conopophagidae (Gnateaters), pp. 732–747 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 8. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.




  page created 22 July 2001, updated 24 May 2003, and completely revised 15–18 Jan 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved