a web page by Don Roberson
MOTMOTS Momotidae
  • 14 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 128 species (85%), 9 photo'd

Motmots are a small family of sit-and-wait arboreal predators in the New World tropics. Nearly all have the same basic shape: large head, strong bill, long body, and 9 of the 14 species have a long tail with racquets at the end of the central rectrices. Broad-billed Motmot (left) is a example of the "classic" motmot. Its bill, however, is broader than most other motmots (below).

Broad-billed Motmot has a wide range from tropical Mexico to northern Argentina. In contrast, the only other species in its genus — Keel-billed Motmot Electron carinatum — is scarce and local from Belize to Costa Rica only.

Motmots sit quietly on a shaded branches, swinging their tail side-to-side at times. It has long been said that the racquet-shaped tips of the long central tail feathers are created by the birds themselves, but the truth is more prosaic. Juvenile motmots and freshly-molted tails of adults do not have racquets but the basal feathers are attached only loosely and simply fall out through ordinary wear-and-tear. Preening can be part of that wear. Although the pendulum-like movement of the tail has long been noted, no one seems to know the precise purpose of the racquets (Snow 2001).

The name "motmot" is an original Mexican name for this group of birds, as quoted in a 1651 travel journal, but became garbled by an early German author to "momot," and hence the Latin name of the original genus and family (Snow 2001).

All of these unobtrusive forest birds form monogamous pairs that dig a long tunnel muddy, earthen banks. The female then lags eggs at the end of the tunnel. These burrows can be quite deep — up to 3-5m long (9-16 ft.) for larger species — and can take weeks to complete (Snow 2001). During these weeks of work, the bill can be quite muddy, even if the motmot comes to a feeder. This Lesson's Motmot (right), at a feeder in Costa Rica, may have been engaged in such work.

Lesson's Motmot is a split from the once widespread "Blue-crowned Motmot" complex (Blue-capped M. coeruliceps, Lesson's, Whooping M. subrufescens, Trinidad M. bahamensis, Amazonian M. momota, and Andean M. aequatorialis motmots). Previously, all were classified as within a single variable species. This Trinidad Motmot (below) is one of the six new species. It, as do other "Blue-crown" congeners, was attracted to a fruit feeder at a wildlife lodge.

In lowland rainforests, the loud, hooting calls of motmots are often part of the aural backdrop. Members of the "Blue-crowned Motmot" complex can be divided into two vocal groups, those that give songs consist of a single note, and those whose song contains two notes. Whooping Motmot M. subrufescens, for example, gives a single, drawn-out "whooop."

Rufous Motmot (left) is a large and impressive forest motmot that usually limits its hooting calls to dawn and dusk, rising and falling in pitch (Skutch 1971). In plumage, Rufous Motmot is quite similar to Broad-billed Motmot, and both have widespread ranges in the lowland forests of Central and South America.

Most motmots are birds of rainforests but Rufous-crowned Motmot (above left) is well-adapted to semi-arid woodlands from western Mexico to Guatemala. Within the current arrangements of genera, Rufous-crowned Motmot is now the only member of genus Momotus that never was a member of the "Blue-crowned Motmot" complex.

Three motmots have 'normal' central rectrices and these species do not have racquets:

  • Blue-throated Motmot (above center) is an elusive motmot in the montane forests of northern Central America, and is much more often heard than seen. It prefers the canopy of pine and humid cloud forests. The plumage of green and blue is easy to overlook.
  • Tody Motmot (above right, in a photo by Terence Degan) is an admirable little motmot, heavily sought after by birds, in Central American lowland and hill forest. It is almost always located by its vocalizations. Tody Motmot was named for its superficial resemblance to the todies of the Caribbean (Snow 2001). In my experience it is very hard to see as it sits motionless in the understory.
  • The final non-racquet-tailed species is Rufous-capped Motmot Baryphthengus ruficapillus of southeastern Brazil.

In addition, three subspecies of Broad-billed Motmot, occurring east of the Andes, lack tail racquets (sometimes considered a separate species “Plain-tailed Motmot”). All Broad-billed Motmots of all subspecies share a similar vocalization: a short, nasal groan.

Motmots sally out from their perches to eat larger insects, but they also consume a variety of invertebrates, frogs, snakes, lizards, and fledgling or sick small birds. Some species also take fruit seasonally (Remsen et al. 1993).


Photos: The first two photos are of Broad-billed Motmot Electron platyrhynchum: the full-frame shot was taken in foothills above Anton Valley, Panama, on 20 Feb 2022, and the head/bill photo was from La Selva, Costa Rica, on 17 Dec 2007. The Lesson's Motmot Momotus lessonii was at Rio Tigre, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. The Trinidad Motmot Momotus bahamensis was at Asa Wright Reserve, Trinidad, on 25 Dec 2006. The Rufous Motmot Baryphthengus martii was at Cerro Azul, Panama, on 17 Feb 2022. The Russet-crowned Motmot Momotus mexicanus was at Singayta, near San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, on 28 Feb 1987. The Blue-throated Motmot Aspatha gularis was at El Triunfo, Chiapas, Mexico, on 23 Mar 2002. Terence Degan photographed the elusive Tody Motmot Hylomanes momotula at Cara Iguana, Anton Valley, Panama, on 20 Feb 2022.

All photos © Don Roberson, except that one attributed to © Terence Degan, and used with permission; all rights reserved

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se but a fine introduction, with some impressive photos, is in Snow (2001).

Literature cited:

Remsen, J.V., M.A. Hyde, and A. Chapman. 1993. The diets of Neotropical trogons, motmots, barbets and toucans. Condor 95: 178–192.

Skutch, A.F. 1971. Life history of the Broad-billed Motmot, with notes on the Rufous Motmot. Wilson Bull. 83: 74–94.

Snow, D.W. 2001. Family Momotidae (Motmots), pp. 264–285 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 6. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Stiles, F.G. 2009. A review of the genus Momotus (Coraciiformes: Momotidae) in northern South America and adjacent areas. Orn. Colombiana. 8: 29–75.




  page created 3-4 Feb 2008, updated 21 Apr 2022  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved