Unique Birds of South America

South America consists of twelve independent countries and an overseas region of France. It is a fascinating continent with a great wealth of historical sites and an array of unique animals and birds not widely known to other countries. Most of the South American countries have state animals and/or birds.

The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is a popular choice as a national bird and has been chosen by Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. It plays an important part in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. Like the moose, okapi and giraffe, it is a monotypic species. It is mainly found up to 5,000 metres in relatively open, non-forested areas.

Andean Condor(85913)Credit: Wikimedia

The bare head and neck of the condors is to minimises picking up infection from the putrid carcases that they mostly feed on. Condors sometimes gorge themselves until they are unable to take off. Their talons are not shaped for carrying off food and they eat on the ground.

Another defence against infection, strange as it may seem, is defecating over the legs and feet. This causes a build up of uric acid and helps kill bacteria. The Andean condor is large and black. The male is larger than the female which is unusual for condors. It has a greater wingspan than the California condor (8.9 to 10.5 feet) and is heavier, with males weighing 24 to 33 pounds.

The head and neck can flush red and males have a 'wattle' of loose skin on the neck and a large, dark red comb or caruncle on the crown. A ruff of white feathers encircles almost all of the neck. The condor has difficulty lifting its bulk into the air and prefers to roost high up so it is easier to launch itself into the air. Once airborne, they float on the thermals. Condors can live for a century in captivity.

Rufous-Bellied ThrushCredit: Wikimedia

The national bird of Brazil is the rufous bellied thrush (Turdus reficentris)(ab0ve). There are 12 species of thrush, each with slightly different colouring. The rufous-bellied thrush migrates north to the tropics during winter. When the warmer weather returning to the temperate zone of Southern Brazil, the bird returns. They are found in treed habitats in both urban and rural areas and travel alone or in pairs. Its main food is coconuts, oranges, papayas and insects. It has a lifespan of 25 to 30 years.

Hoatzin(85921)Credit: By Linda De Volder (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The national bird of Guyana is the hoatzin or 'stink bird' (Opisthocomus hoazin)(above) and the national animal the jaguar. Like the Andean condor, it is a monotypic species. It has a Mohican haircut and cape-like wings. This somewhat bizarre appearance of a spiky crest and flamboyant plumage is offset by a most unpleasant odour. The stench comes from the unique digestive system which is more like that of a cow than of a bird.

Bacterial fermentation in the crop (rather than the rumen) digests the 82% of leaves that form the main dietary matter. Like the koala, the hoatzin needs to eat a lot of leaves as they provide very little nourishment. The leaves are chewed before being swallowed and ridges in the crop help break down the cellulose further. A similar process occurs in the koala.

The hoatzin is the size of a pheasant with a long neck and small head. The crest is red as are the eyes and the face is naked and blue. The upperparts are dark with buff edgings and streaks on the mantle and nape. The wings form a dramatic cape and the tail is fanned out to aid the bird's clumsy clambering in the trees over marshes, mangroves and the riverine areas it frequents. These are awkward birds, not good at flying. A leathery bump on the bottom of the crop is another unusual feature.

Bare-Throated BellbirdCredit: Wikimedia

The bare-throated bellbird (Procnias nudicollis)(above) is found in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. It is the national bird of Paraquay and the pampas fox is the national animal. It is found in subtropical or tropical lowland forests or tropical moist montane forests in a relatively narrow strip down the eastern coastline of the continent. The male is shiny white with a bare but turquoise blue throat. Females and juveniles are light or olive green with a black head. The 'bellbird' part of the name comes from the sharp cry of the male when it is trying to attract a mate. The sound is like that of a hammer hitting an anvil or bell. Apart from its piercing calls, it is rarely heard or seen and little is known about its habits. It is a frugivore (fruit-eater) and is believed to migrate seasonally as it follows ripening fruit areas. The bird is 26 to 28 cm in length and is listed as 'vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List.

Andean Cock-of-the-RockCredit: Wikimedia

The Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus)(above) and the vicuna are the national bird and animal of Peru. The cock-of-the-rock is a medium-sized passerine (perching) bird of about 32 cm long and 235 grams. It is native to Andean cloud forests and the designated national bird of Peru. The sexes are different in colouring with the males having a large disk-like crest and scarlet or brilliant orange plumage. The tail and wings are black and the shoulders grey. It stays mostly at elevations of 500 to 2,400 metres. It is shy and inconspicuous and not easily spotted. The diet is mostly fruit and insects and they have been recorded as following army ants. The female is a much drabber brown.

The male enters into elaborate displays of its plumage in communal 'leks' (gathering of males for the purposes of competitive mating displays. Males compete with each other, often in pairs, standing off and bowing, jumping, flapping at each other and becoming a frenzy of colour and very strange sounds. Once mating takes place, the male takes no further part in building a mud nest and raising the, typically, two chicks.

Rufous HorneroCredit: Wikimedia

The rufous hornero (Furnarius rufus)(above) is the national bird of Argentina and the cougar the national animal. The rufous hornero is also known as the red ovenbird. Oven birds get their name from the elaborate, oven-like, clay nests that they build, often on fence-posts or telephone poles. Pairs mate for life. The nest takes between a fortnight and three months to build. The same nest is not used two years running but may be refurbished after being left for a year or two.

There are four subspecies. It is a large bird with a square tail and mostly reddish brown feathering and a whitish throat. They forage for fruit and insects on the forest floor and are often seen near human habitation. It is common in pastures and its range extends from south-east and southern Brazil through to northern Patagonia.

TroupialCredit: By Peter Meenen (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The troupial (Icterus icterus)(above) is Venezuela's national bird. There are over 25 species of these 'New World Orioles'. They are fairly large with a long tail and a bulky bill. The plumage on the front of the neck and upper breast stick outward and form a visual 'break' between the black of the head and upper breast and the orange of the lower breast and underparts. The body is orange with black shoulders and black wings except for a white streak along the wings. The yellow eyes have a bright blue naked eye-ring.

These birds do not build a nest but occupy a vacant nest or drive a pair away from an active nest. They can be very aggressive in their attacks, eating any eggs or nestlings which may be in the nest. They lay 3 to 4 eggs that take about a fortnight to hatch.

While these birds are unique and fascinating, they are only a few of the diverse fauna species which populate South America.