In the Neotropics (Central and South America) there are more species of birds than anywhere else in the world. Habitats range from high Andean mountains to the barren coast of southern Peru and Chile, from active volcanoes along the spine of Central America to the pampas of Argentina, and the incredible Amazon basin. Numerous micro-habitats exist in lowland tropical jungles -- there are birds who are transitory island specialists in the larger rivers, birds found only in seasonally flooded forest, and birds that specialize in bamboo. It is too bad that from time to time political instability or the drug trade make various sites unsafe, but there remains a wealth of areas to explore:

To me, the Neotropics extend north into Mexico as far as the northernmost tinamou or furnarid. These are pure neotropical species. Almost any visit to Mexico and south brings you to another world, familiar in some respects but much less so in others. Costa Rica is a paradise apart; check out some accessible parks, lodges, and bird photos at Marc Fenner's Costa Rica birding site

It is impossible to visit South America too many times. New forest lodges seem to appear every year, some of which compete with the Tambopata Nature Reserve around Explorer's Inn, Peru, for the title of "birdiest spot on earth" (based on the number of species found there). Research teams, especially those from Louisiana State University, continue to explore new mountain ranges in western South America. Yet there is serious trouble in South and Central America with the loss of forest. The lowlands of the Amazon rain forest continue to burn at unbelievable rates; once lost they are lost forever. Many montane cloud forests are even more endangered. As seems to be a theme as I write these pages, there are superb places to visit but the threats posed by man and his destruction of habitats have endangered most of them.


Some 23 families are endemic to the Neotropical realm (although it can easily be argued that neither Sharpbill nor Plantcutters deserve "family" status):

Rheidae Rheas Ramphastidae Toucans
Tinamidae Tinamous Dendrocolaptidae Woodcreepers
Anhimidae Screamers Furnariidae Ovenbirds & Allies
Opisthocomidae Hoatzin Thamnophilidae Typical Antbirds
Psophiidae Trumpeters Formicariidae Ground Antbirds
Eurypygidae Sunbittern Conopophagidae Gnateaters
Cariamidae Seriemas Rhinocryptidae Tapaculos
Thinocoridae Seedsnipe Cotingidae Cotingas
Steatornithidae Oilbird Phytotomidae Plantcutters
Momotidae Motmots Oxyruncidae Sharpbill
Galbulidae Jacamars Pipridae Manakins
Bucconidae Puffbirds
In addition, three more families are almost entirely Neotropical, with only a couple chachalacas (in the Guan family) reaching northern Mexico/southernmost U.S.; a small portion of the Limpkin populations reach Florida & the Caribbean; and one potoo resides on a few Caribbean islands. These are the "near-endemic" families
Cracidae Guans
Aramidae Limpkin
Nyctibiidae Potoos

Handbook: The two volumes (of four proposed) of The Birds of South America (Ridgely & Tudor 1989, 1994) are superb. Robert Ridgely has gathered together, through incredible networking with all the major workers in South America, an up-to-date summary of what is known about the identification, distribution, and biology of each bird, and Guy Tudor's plates (showing representatives of at least one of every genera, and often many more) are a joy to view. Even better, they started with the "back of the list" and the first two volumes cover all the passerines, about which we are much more interested than neotropical seabirds (not to diminish seabirds, but virtually nothing was available for many passerine species before these volumes appeared). I can only hope that the project will be completed; I understand it is currently side-tracked while a smaller "field guide" composed of the handbook plates and some facing text, is completed. The authors have a good handle on the vast literature.
    An earlier effort -- the Manual of Neotropical Birds -- only achieved Volume 1 (Blake 1977) of a proposed 4-volume set. Its intent was to cover all of the 3300 birds of the Neotropics (including Central America) but this was just too great of an undertaking. Volume 1 covers penguins through gulls and is written in an old-style stodgy manner without the input of field ornithologists. It feels like one of the older treatises by museum-bound professionals, using museum-style "keys" for identification, only the broadest description of distribution, and nothing about biology, vocalizations, or field work. The few plates were nice but don't compete with Tudor.
    Helmut Sick's Birds in Brazil (1993), for what it lacks as a field guide (see below) more than makes up for as a delightfully written introduction to Brazilian habitats and Neotropical families.

Field Guides: In earlier times (for example, the 1970s) there were very few guides to latin America. Peterson & Chalif (1973) covered Mexico and a bit farther south, while Meyer de Schauensee (1964; on Colombia) and (1970; on all of South America) were about it for the "bird continent." How well I remember trying to use any Meyer de Schauensee in the field! There were precious few plates so one basically tried to sort out birds from short written descriptions, many of which read like this example for Lined Antshrike Thamnophilus paliatus: Male "much like 16 [Barred Antshrike], but blacker" while female "very much like 17 [Bar-crested Antshrike] but underparts more heavily barred, back averaging darker." This was such hard going that I spent months prior to my 1975 visit to Colombia preparing my own personalized field guide by freehand drawings of outlines of, say, antshrikes, and then coloring them in with colored pencils according to Meyer de Schauensee's brief descriptions. At least we were able to work out some of the barbets this way!
    Now, northern Central America is wonderfully covered by Howell & Webb (1995) and the southern half by Ridgely & Gwynne (1989), or, if you're just heading to Costa Rica in between, then Stiles & Skutch (1989) is the preferred guide. Each, however, is thick and heavy as a field guide. The Panama and Costa Rica volumes (esp. the latter) cover much natural history beyond straight identification. Most birders will still want a lightweight guide, short on text but with color plates of all species, to throw in a back-pack or stick in a pocket. The Peterson & Chalif guide, and the new Edwards (1998) serve these purposes adequately in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.
    In South America, Colombia and Venezuela are blessed with two of the better field guides in the word due to Guy Tudor's outstanding artwork: Meyer de Schauensee & Phelps (1978) and Hilty & Brown (1986), respectively. The Venezuela text is weak but Tudor's notes facing the plates make a huge difference, while the coverage in the Colombia book is so excellent (both text and plates) that it is the guide in use for Ecuador and even much of Peru. Ecuador's major guide, by Bob Ridgely with plates by Paul Greenfield, should be out soon (the plates I've seen are great). Trinidad & Tobago is adequately covered by ffrench (1973).
    After that it gets dicey. Fjeldså & Krabbe (1990) covers all the birds of the "high Andes" (mostly above 2500m) but is a huge tome, much too heavy to carry in the field; some birders cut out the plates alone to carry along on trips (although the text is quite thorough and useful). We got along fine with landbirds on the dry coast of southern Peru with Koepcke (1970), even though it has only black-and-white sketches (but seabirds require a better text). Before his untimely death, Ted Parker was working on a major Peruvian book and (hopefully) it will be completed by others someday. In the meantime, Peru is a problem (and I created another of my own personalized guides when I visited there in 1987).
    The southern cone of South America (Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southernmost Brazil) is covered in a new Collins guide (de la Pena & Rumboll 1998) which has color plates of all species and a set of maps in the back. The only text, however, is facing the color plates, and thus is limited to the briefest mention of key characters, habitat, and vocalizations. The plates look reasonably good but I fear the minimal text will lead to mistakes and confusion. I note already that errors exist (confusion between Cook's & Defilippi's petrels -- a problem that was sorted out in Roberson & Bailey 1991 -- but this text remains in the 1930s on the issue, confusing one taxon with the other). This effort, while pleasing to the eye, will surely be inadequate as a field guide. Fortunately, I believe two major field guides for Chile are currently underway.
    This leaves the problems of Peru and Bolivia, and, most importantly, Brazil. There are introductory books with crude plates for portions of Brazil (e.g., Frisch 1981, Dubs 1992) which are either in Portuguese and cover only a limited selection of the more impressive species, or have stick-figure drawings with cotton for eyes. Very recently, a new paperback in Portuguese (Sousa 1998) has paintings of all Brazilian birds; these are not at professional field guide level but I found them more useful than, say, the Collins guide (de la Pena & Rumboll 1998) for southern Brazil. Helmut Sick's (1993) Birds in Brazil is a good natural history introduction but is very heavy, has only a few plates (430 species which are only 26% of Brazil's 1635 birds), and the species accounts are tinged with museum-laden terminology although many field observations are included. Lots of interesting stuff in introductory material, and on families, but this is not a field guide. For now, birders will still struggle with a variety of texts when birding Brazil, Bolivia, or Peru. One help, though, are the photos in Dunning (1982) which show a huge variety of landbirds in crisp photos (usually taken in "net-and-release" situations in the field) and has a nice summary text with broadscale maps.

Two other books deserve special mention: Ornithological Monograph 36 [Neotropical Ornithology by Buckley, et al., eds., 1985] and Ornithological Monograph 48 [Studies in Neotropical Ornithology honoring Ted Parker by Remsen, ed., 1997]. Both are very heavy, thick books but each is filled with fascinating papers about the Neotropics -- descriptions of new species with color plates, local avifaunal lists with annotations (such as on Alta Floresta, Brazil, in the most recent book), papers on evolution, ecology, and conservation -- a wealth of material any serious birder should have. They may be ordered from the American Ornithologists' Union; details on the A.O.U. web site.

Journals: The Neotropical Bird Club publishes The Cotinga about twice a year, a superb and colorful journal with identification papers, new discoveries, avifaunal surveys, and many photos. It emphasizes rare, unusual, and endangered species and is highly recommended. There have been several short-lived journals covering Mexico: the Mexican Birds Newsletter (1980s; emphasis on trip reports and "where to go" information) and The Euphonia (early 1990s; more formal papers on first records and new sites). Alas, neither was able to support itself financially, and again there is a glaring need for more regional journals in English. Several regional journals exist but publish primarily in Spanish or Portuguese.

Non-bird Book [nature / exploration / adventure]: Peter Matthiessen's (1961) The Cloud Forest, a journal of travels in wilderness South America, and his At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1966), a rich and intricately-designed novel set in the Amazon jungle (and a devastating indictment of missionary interference with local cultures), are both fine reads set in South America. Any of Alexander Skutch's books (e.g., Skutch 1983) give a vivid picture of Central American forests. But perhaps I enjoyed most Stap's (1991) A Parrot Without a Name, the story of a Louisiana State University expedition's search "for the last unknown birds on earth" in Peru.

BEST BIRDS [see my explanation for choosing "best birds" here]

My choices for the 9 "best birds" in the Neotropics follow, but one would be justified in making entirely different choices since there are so many from which to choose. This particular list emphasizes "spectacular" bird over the rare and obscure; there are many super-localized specialties in the Neotropics, any of which is a thrill to finally observe. This list of unbelievably colored tanagers is quite long (I particularly recommend the Glistening-green, Multicolored, and Golden-chested tanagers of Colombia). I could have easily picked more guans and curassows (each is a challenge and many are exotic-looking beasts; the Nocturnal Curassow Nothocrax urumutum is nearly impossible to see), but somehow I ended up with four cotingas.... I guess I am just enamored of lekking "arena-court" species:

FAVORITE PHOTOS: This link goes to a page with the three favorite Neotropical bird photos that I have taken so far.

Literature cited:

Blake, E. R. 1977. Manual of Neotropical Birds. Vol. 1: Spheniscidae (Penguins) to Laridae (Gulls and Allies). Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Buckley, P.A., M. S. Foster, E. S. Morton, R. S. Ridgely, and F. G. Buckley, eds. 1985. Neotropical Ornithology. Ornith. Monograph 36. A.O.U., Washington, D.C.

Collar, N.J., M.J. Crosby, and A.J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 4, BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

Delacour, J., and D. Amadon. 1973. Curassows and Related Birds. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., New York.

de la Pena, M. R., and M. Rumboll. 1998. Collins Illustrated Checklist: Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica. Harper Collins, New York.

Dubs, B. 1992. Birds of Southwestern Brazil. Betrona-Verlag, Switzerland.

Dunning, J.S., with collaboration from R.S. Ridgely. 1982. South American Landbirds: a Photographic Aid to Identification.

Edwards, E.P. 1998. A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas. 3d ed. Univ. of Texas, Austin, TX.

ffrench, R. 1973. A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Livingston Publ., Wynnewood, PA.

Fjeldså, J. & N. Krabbe. 1990. Birds of the High Andes. Apollo Books, Svendborg, Denmark.

Frisch, J. D. 1981. Aves Brasileiras. Vol. 1. Dalgas-Ecoltec, Sao Paulo.

Hilty, S.L., and W.L. Brown 1986. A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Howell, S. N. G., and S. Webb. 1995. A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central   America. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Koepcke, M. 1970. The Birds of the Department of Lima, Peru. Rev. ed. Harrowood Books, Newton Square, PA.

Lowery, G. H., Jr., and J. P. O'Neill. 1964. A new genus and species of tanager from Peru. Auk 81: 125-131.

Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1964. The Birds of Colombia and Adjacent Areas of South and Central America. Academy of Nat. Sci., Philadelphia.

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

Meyer de Schauensee, R., and W.H. Phelps, Jr. 1978. A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Pacheco, J. F. 1998. Cherry-throated Tanager Nemosia rourei rediscovered. Cotinga 9: 41.

Peterson, R.T., and E.L. Chalif. 1973. A Field Guide to Mexican Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Remsen, J. V., Jr., ed. 1997. Studies in Neotropical Ornithology honoring Ted Parker. Ornith. Monograph 48. A.O.U., Washington, D. C. [Also has two fine papers about the all-too-short life of the great Ted Parker, and a list of his publications. Several new species of birds are named for him in this treatise.]

Ridgely, R.S., and J.A. Gwynne. 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Panama with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. 2d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Ridgely, R.S., and G. Tudor. 1989. The Birds of South America. Vol. 1: The Oscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

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

Roberson, D., and S.F. Bailey. 1991. Cookilaria petrels in the eastern Pacific Ocean: Identification and distribution. Part I: Am. Birds 45: 399-403. Part II: Am. Birds 45: 1067-1081.

Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil: a Natural History. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Skutch, A. F. 1983. Birds of Tropical America. Univ. of Texas Press, Austin, TX.

Souza, D. 1998. Todas as Aves do Brasil. Dall, Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil.

Stap, D. 1991. A Parrot without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Stiles, F.G., and A.F. Skutch. 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N.Y.

Trail, P. 1985. A Lek's Icon -- the courtship display of the Guinian Cock-of-the-Rock. Amer. Birds 39: 235-240.

Trail, P. W., and P. Donahue. 1991. Notes on the behavior and ecoology of the red-cotingas (Cotingidae: Phoenicircus). Wilson Bull. 103: 539-551.




Page created 14 Mar 1999; revised 17 Dec 1999 & 28 Apr 2000