Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” zoologist, photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond. Contact: email@example.com All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo
Turquoise-browed Motmot, Eumomota superciliosa, Momoto Cejas Azules (Spanish), tooj, Toh (Mayan)
When I saw seven motmots perched on a utility line at the same time, I couldn’t believe the kaleidoscope of colors. Usually I spot the silhouette of this bird with its “telltail” signs resting on a shady tree limb at our many archaeological sites, haciendas, gardens, or even my Merida backyard. I often see it just before the ticket entry to Dzibilchaltun ruins. It also alights on wires along our roadsides as if to say, “Let me brighten your day with my beauty.” In the Yucatan Peninsula, the Turquoise-browed Motmot or Toh is a stunning, common resident and its range extends down to Costa Rica.
This is a species of contrasts, as this gorgeous bird does not have a voice to match its magnificent plumage. In this recording several sound like frogs followed by the typical call.
Although the 13-15 inch Turquoise-browed Motmot preys on insects, spiders, small lizards and snakes, it includes fruit in its diet. It seizes some insects in the air or snatches other motmot goodies from the ground. The motmot beats its live prey on a tree limb to kill it.
I didn’t expect this species with its marvelous tail to nest in a cave, well, rock quarry, cenote, hacienda wall or a tunnel that it makes. What a surprise to see one fly up out of a well!
Where habitats permit digging, such as earthen banks, each bird of a mating pair takes turns to dig out a tunnel from two to eight feet long and about three inches wide. The motmot goes into the burrow face forward to scratch out the dirt and then backs out. That action probably protects those tails, which both sexes have. Furthermore, males and females look alike.
Both parents incubate the two to five eggs, which hatch in about three weeks, and feed their brood. In about a month, the young fly from the nest.
Because it swings its two longer tail feathers back and forth like a pendulum, people here call this motmot, pájaro reloj or “clock bird” or even “beer-thirty.” Research indicates this wag-tail display may acknowledge the presence of a predator or a person with a camera. Perhaps that display communicates to the predator, “I see you; don’t even try to capture me. I will escape.”
Additionally, the wag-tail display may serve as a false signal to a predator or unseen predators just before a motmot feeds its young.
Size matters in mate selection. Studies show a female chooses a male with the largest tail and longest tail shaft. (No comment.) They have greater pairing and reproductive success. Her tail plumage doesn’t function as a sexual signal but his does. Perhaps he is “feather vain”.
So why is part of the feather vane missing on the tail? Misinformation abounds about the denuded shaft. People thought the bird deliberately plucked the barbs out of its tail. Instead, the loosely attached barbs come out easily during routine living. However, I am curious why this motmot’s tail has uneven wires, as I’ve not seen others like this.
A cousin of this motmot species, the Blue-crowned Motmot, lives in the Yucatan Peninsula. I seldom see this one but got one quick image of it hiding under a leaf. Note the shorter tail shaft than the Turquoise-browed. This motmot has its halo-like crown, not its brows, in blue plumage. Its eyes look like a KISS rock star unlike the Turquoise-browed Motmot with its Amy Winehouse-lined eyes.
According to several sources, Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, called the Turquoise-browed Motmot the fifth poetic bird. I searched and found the video but couldn’t play it. Maybe Stephen said it or notnot. Either way, here is poem I wrote for last week’s article about it:
DISCOVER NATURE’S SPLENDOR IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD. IT’S OKAY TO GO OUT AND SHAKE A TAIL FEATHER!
DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on information about this species. Here are my resources: Sal a Pajarear Yucatan Guia de Aves, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Birds and Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, www.allaboutbirds.org and http://macaulaylibrary.org/ websites from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.coraciiformestag.com/Research/Motmot/p0201-p0217.pdf http://www.trinity.edu/tmurphy/trinity/motmot.html, http://www.kidwings.com/bodyparts/feathers/parts/
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