The Birds of Costa Rica
With around 830 bird species, Costa Rica is a veritable paradise for the birdwatching traveller. 600 species call Costa Rica their home all year round and 200 migrate from temperate zones. Compared to the 700 bird species occurring in North America, this is an amazing variety! The magnificence of tropical birdlife is astonishing, due to highly coloured bodies (the scarlet macaw being the most famous example). So not only the experienced bird spotter, but also first-timers will be enchanted by the colourful avian wildlife expecting you in this natural habitat.
Birds evolved from reptiles, around 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period of the Mesozoic Era. Birds tell a story of evolutionary success, mainly as a result of their ability to fly. Hollow bones and powerful feathered wings are the two main characteristics that enable them to fly. As classification of birds is a science of its own and there is no clear consensus on these classifications, we will only describe single birds (not their genealogy).
That most tropic birds are frugivorous is an important ecological feature. It contributes to the evolutionary success of birds and trees: fruit is always easily available and does not have to be caught in exhaustive hunts. Trees on the other hand can spread their seeds farther away – as they are carried and “dropped off” by birds. That way, young plants do not have to compete with parents for important sunlight (read the Toucan for more information).
Spotting birds is easiest during early morning and in the afternoon, when they are most active because of comfortable temperatures. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars along if you are interested in spotting a number of birds (particularly the legendary resplendent quetzal). Avoid making noises while you walk along jungle trails to increase your chances of spotting birds going after their businesses.
There are over 350 parrot species (also known as psittacines) worldwide, of which 16 species occur in Costa Rica. Typical characteristics are their strong hooked bill, short necks and a compact body. Parrots are mostly found in lowland forests and can reach ages of up to 80 years! The most frequent colour scheme is green, but the Scarlet Macaw (Ara) is famous for its red colour. Sometimes they are referred to as “hookbill” because they often use the bill to balance themselves over branches. While the upper mandible is curved downward, the lower mandible is short and has a sharp cutting edge. Parrots have strong tongues with which they are able to scoop out pulp from fruit.
Their diet consists of seeds, nuts, fruits and flower parts. However, they do not disperse seeds like most birds, but actually digest them fully (i.e. they don’t help particular plants to spread).
Note that the Great Green and the Scarlet Macaw are endangered. This is not only due to their threatened habitats but also to their popularity as pets. No matter how fascinating these birds are, think twice if you really want to bereave these beautiful birds of their freedom.
Like many other birds, parrots are monogamous breeders. Scarlet Macaws (known as “Ara” in Costa Rica) are legendary for their lifelong faithfulness. It is an amazing sight to see these magnificent red birds flying overhead in pairs of two in the late afternoon. The Osa Peninsula (particularly Corcovado National Park) is probably the best place in the country to spot these animals.
Parrots are currently considered the most intelligent of birds and their brain-to-body ratio is even comparable to that of primates. But this is not the explanation for their ability to imitate human speech. Tests have shown that they are hardly able to associate meaning to words. As parrots don’t have vocal chords, their impressive “speech” is produced by air exhaust across the trachea (in other words: whistling).
Next to parrots, toucans are probably the kind of bird visitors are most eager to spot during a holiday in Costa Rica. Fortunately, they are also very likely to do so. It is not rare to see the remarkable outline of one (or a group) of these birds flying from one treetop to the next.
Toucans have short, compact bodies with short necks. Their size varies between 30-60 cm. They are mostly frugivores (fruit-eaters) and easy to recognise because of their enormous, lightly coloured bills. The bill is almost hollow inside and an important tool to handle their nutrition. Toucans are birds of a mostly beneficial attitude, so it might sadden some readers that they do sometimes garnish their vegetarian diet with the occasional reptile, bird egg or nestling.
Toucans are important partners for many plants to spread in tropic forests. The seeds of all fruits that toucans eat pass their digestive track unharmed. That way, these frugivorous birds are responsible for many a tree growing in one place and not the other. (In the tropics, this can actually be of essential importance: the parenting plant can propagate without having to share the sunlight with its offspring because the toucan “drops” the seed in a completely different location”.)
The famous quetzal is definitely the most glamorous bird in Central America. Its name derives from the Aztec word for beautiful or precious. This precisely applies to the emerald male tailfeathers that grow during mating season (March-June/July) – which is the best season to watch these birds.
Quetzals belong to the family of Trogons, which consists of about 40 species inhabiting semi-tropical regions. Trogons are medium sized birds (ca. 35 cm) that have short necks and compact bodies. Resplendent Quetzal males are somewhat particular: they have green bodies with red breasts and heads with a ridged crest; during breeding season they get magnificent tail feathers that can reach lengths up to half a meter.
Quetzals inhabit montane cloud forests with a cool climate on elevations up to 3000 m. Monteverde and especially San Gerardo de Dota are good places to find the quetzal (we had particularly good feedbacks from San Gerardo, where our competent birding guides could point them out to almost 100% of our customers – ask us for more information).
“Quetzal” means sacred or precious in various Central American indigenous languages. The male tail plumes were used as headdresses by chiefs of several tribes, thereby symbolising their superiority. In Mayan culture it was a crime to kill a quetzal; hence the birds had to be captured in order to retrieve their feathers. The quetzal is a poor flyer, so capturing one is not exceptionally difficult (get us right: we do clearly not recommend you capture a quetzal!).
Of the existing 330 hummingbird species, over 50 can be found in Costa Rica. Because these small birds inhabit such a huge area, including montane elevations over 4000m to tropical lowlands, they can be found across the country. (I have actually seen my first hummingbird on the patio of the Hotel Fleur de Lys in San José!) Hummingbirds are sometimes rather curious and might sometimes hover very close to you and check you out before they disappear.
Due to their distinctive, long bills and the peculiar way of flying, hummingbirds are quite easy to identify, even for the untrained eye. Mostly their size is between 5 to 15 cm and they weigh from 2-10 grams. They have a high metabolism and their heart beats 600-1200 times per minute.
Hummingbirds feed almost exclusively on flower nectar (and the occasional insect). In this manner they accomplish cross-pollination: certain flowers are “specialised” on hummingbirds and use these tiny feathered friends in the same way as bees. Mostly, flowers of this kind can be recognised by their long, thin tubes (fitting the hummingbirds’ beaks) and colours of red, orange or pink (suiting the hummingbirds’ vision). This is why one predator, the eyelash viper can often be found close to a plant called Strelitzia reginae (or “Ave del Paraíso”): when a hummingbird passes to slurp the sweet nectar, the snakes can dart over distances up to 50 cm to snatch the birds!
Their super lightweight and their particular wings are reasons for their unique ability to hover during flight and even fly backwards! Because flying costs so much energy they spend only about 10 % of their time in the air – the rest of the time they are just sitting, watching and digesting.
Because of their high metabolism, hummingbirds are obliged to eat more food than they weigh each day!
The roseate spoonbill can be found in marshes and water habitats. They are easy to recognise for their distinctive pink colouring. Mostly you will find them looking for food, stirring their bills in the shallow water. They eat whatever comes in touch with their bill, mostly fish, crustaceans, frogs and snails.
Traveling in Costa Rica, you will often spot cows surrounded by tallish birds, pecking around the cattle. These are called cattle egrets because of their habit to follow grazing cattle and feeding on small vertebrates and insects that are stirred up by the moving cows. Although one might expect so, this is not a symbiosis, as the cows do not profit from this cohabitation. The cows, however, as their nature dictates, are completely indifferent to their feathered company.
Cattle egrets are a heron species that found their way to the Americas without human interference. Although originating from Europe and Africa they appeared in South America in the late 1800s (probably deviated on their migration by a storm). As the birds found much cattle, with which they could hang around they seem to have decided that they liked the new world and spread successfully.
Travelling in Central America, one often encounters a variety of vultures. These are large birds with hooked bills and strangely bald heads of a reddish colour. Their feathers are usually brown or black. The wing span of vultures is between 1-2 metres. The most famous representative of this species is the Andean condor, a huge bird with wing spans of up to 3 metres (but the condor is not native to Costa Rica).
Vultures are known to feed on carrion and they do almost exclusively so. Thanks to their ability to fly they can comb through huge areas to clear of dead animals. Although their reputation is rather bad, these scavengers actually contribute importantly to biological sanitation. Clearing vast areas of dead bodies not only helps to prevent bad smells, but also potential diseases. But vultures are only the first link in a chain: after clearing the main bits, insects and microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria will take care of the rest. Thereby, a dead body can literally disappear within few days (this process happens a lot faster in the tropics than in temperate zones).
Species occurring in Costa Rica are: the Turkey Vulture, King Vulture and Black Vulture.