a web page by Don Roberson
PUFFBIRDS Bucconidae
  • 37 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 16 species (43%), 6 photo'd

The Puffbirds are a well-defined family of quiet forest birds in the lowlands of Central and South America. They vary in size from small to medium-sized landbirds and most have a large bulky head, large eyes, a robust bill, a bristly face, and loose plumage. I remember being very impressed with my first close encounter with a largish and impressive puffbird: this Black-breasted Puffbird along Pipeline Road in Panama back in 1981 (left).

The closest relatives to Puffbirds are Jacamars [Galbulidae] and together they form the Order Galbuliformes. Both puffbirds and jacamars are Neotropical sit-and-wait predators, but puffbirds have (mostly) short, broad bills while jacamars have (mostly) long, sharp-pointed bills. These two families diverged about 36 million years ago (Prum et al. 2015).

Puffbirds are primarily patterned in shades of brown, gray, black, chestnut or white — many are quite lovely in their coordinated color palette. A fine example of a beautifully pattern small puffbird is Chestnut-capped Puffbird (right in a very nice shot by Arthur Grosset). It is an understory or subcanopy species in the western Amazon Basin. Like many puffbirds, it digs holes in arboreal termite colonies (termitaria) for nests.

Despite the fine plumage, "preparers of specimens have noted that many puffbird species ar malodorous ... indeed, since 1815 it has been known that puffbirds are not especially edible, and perhaps their oft-remarked confiding and imperturbable natures ... is related to this circumstances. On the other hand, their unpleasant odour could simply be a result of the type of prey that they ingest, which would have a side benefit of making them undesirable as prey themselves;" Rasmussen & Collar (2002). Their prey routinely includes lizards, larger insects, centipedes, millipedes, and scorpions. Except for Swallow-winged Puffbird (see below), the "hunting technique is standard throughout the family. The birds make flycatcher-like sallies from an open perch ... and target prey that is amid green foliage, on trunks and branches, on the ground or in the air;" (ibid.).

Many puffbirds are birds of dense tropical forests, but some species are adapted to more open habitats in gallery forests, cerrado, campos, or savanna. One example is the colorfully patterned White-eared Puffbird (left). It ranges from central Brazil to northern Argentina, "one of the southernmost distributions of any bucconid, and is reported to lower its body temperature and enter torport during cool weather;" (Rasmussen & Collar 2002).

A bucconid that I've missed several times and would like to see is Lanceolated Monklet Micromonacha lanceolata. It is very patchily distributed at middle elevations in foothill forests from Costa Rica to Bolivia. It is the smallest member of the family and just elusive and hard to see. The six species of nunlets (genus Nonnula) are also small, shy, and retiring in behavior. While, for example, Rusty-breasted Nunlet Nonnula rebecula "is widely reported as being rare, on basis of very low contact rates during fieldwork, but the species is probably under-recorded owing to unobtrusive habits;" (ibid.).

Puffbirds are among the quietest birds in Neotropical forests, and usually sing only at dawn or dusk. Some vocalize with opening their bill. This is not true of Spot-bellied Puffbird Nystalus maculatus and its close relative, proposed as a split, the Chaco Puffbird of the Brazilian Pantanal (right). When they sing, it is open-billed. Yet, as they sit so quietly, they are still difficult to locate in mid-canopy.

These and other similar puffbirds are actually quite small. Based on weight, they are less than half the size of a big Notharchus puffbird, such as this White-necked Puffbird (below, perched high in a Costa Rican forest next to a huge bromeliad).


Sitting quietly along the edges of many Neotropical lowland forests are black-robed nunbirds (genus Monasa). There are four species differing primarily in the presence of white on the crown or chin, or in the color of the bill. Three are red-billed and one is yellow-billed; the latter is Yellow-billed Nunbird Monasa flavirostris of the western Amazon. It is often considered rare or, at least, very unobtrusive This is White-fronted Nunbird (right; another Arthur Grosset photo). It is widespread in Central and South American lowlands, often at edges of clearings or sitting at mid-levels along rivers.

The White-faced Nunbird Hapaloptila castanea is quite different. It is not black but brownish above, chestnut below, black-billed, and has large white nasal tufts. Unlike most other bucconids it is a montane species, occurring patchily in cloud forest above 1500m (over 5000'). Despite this sign on a trail near Owlet Lodge, northern Peru, we dipped despite daily efforts.

The final entry in the Bucconidae is a quite different bird. It is the Swallow-wing Puffbird or, simply, the Swallow-wing (left and below; all of these are Arthur Grosset photos). While most puffbirds prefer shade, even deep shade, Swallow-wing Puffbird sits out in the sun high on bare branches (below left). There are often along the banks of large rivers or high above the forest canopy. Here they sally out after fees, wasps, termites and flying ants. They have exceptionally broad wings and short tails. Global birders are apt to compare them to the wood-swallows of Australasia.

Swallow-wing Puffbirds occur throughout the Amazon Basin and in other lowland forested areas from Venezuela to eastern Brazil. They nest by digging tunnels in sandy ground — often earthen banks, frequently along rivers — but have taken advantage of man-made strata such as airstrips or road cuts; Rasmussen & Collar (2002).

Recent molecular evidence, matched to fossil deposits to estimate age, suggests that Swallow-wing Puffbird diverged from the rest of the Bucconidae about 18 million years ago (Prum et al. 2015). This could support subfamily assignment of this unique species. Indeed, there are many family-level clades among the passerines that are younger than this.


Photos: The Black-breasted Puffbird Notharchus pectoralis was along Pipeline Road, Panama, in Jan 1981. Arthur Grosset photographed the Chestnut-capped Puffbird Bucco macrodactylus in Rondonia, Brazil, in March 2003. The White-eared Puffbird Nystalus chacuru was in Emas NP, Brazil, on 26 July 2010. The Spot-backed (Chaco) Puffbird Nystalus (maculatus) striatipectus was in the Brazilian Pantanal on 23 July 2010. The canopy-perched White-necked Puffbird Notharchus hyperrhynchus was at La Selva, Costa Rica, on 18 Dec 2007. Arthur Grossett photographed the White-fronted Nunbird Monasa morpoeus in Linhares, Espírito Santo, Brazil. The signpost at Owlet Lodge, Peru, was in Nov 2015. Arthur Grosset took all the photos of Swallow-winged Puffbird Chelidoptera tenebrosa in Brazil; the final two shots were from the Atlantic Forest population.

Uncredited photos © Don Roberson. Credited photos © Arthur Grosset and Jeri M. Langham, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved.
More of Arthur Grosset's excellent photos are on his web site.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" but an excellent introduction to this family, with some great photos, is in Rasmussen & Collar (2002).

Literature cited:

Prum, R.O., J.S. Bery, A. Dornburg, D.J. Field, J.P. Townsend, E.M. Lemmon, and A.R. Lemmon. 2015. A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 526: 569–573.

Rasmussen, P.C., and N.J. Collar. 2002. Family Bucconidae (Puffbirds), pp. 102–138 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 7. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.




  page created 5 Mar 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved