Amazon birds

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Jabirú Mycteria, Iténez, Bolivia
© WWF / Gustavo YBARRA

Welcome to the world’s mega bird park

From the colourful toucan to the majestic harpy eagle, the South American tropics rank as one of the world's most diverse areas for birds. About 3,800 species are found there – over 1,300 in the Amazon, 28 of which are endemic to the region1.

There is considerable variety in the geographic range from one species to another. While the harpy eagle ranges from southern Central America to the Amazon, some toucan species may be found only in relatively restricted areas.

At one site in the Peruvian Amazon, about 575 bird species have been identified within a mere 5,500-hectare section of the rainforest. By comparison, 700 bird species are found in the whole of North America.

From November to March, some birds migrate from North America to the Central American and South American tropics. Others are found exclusively in the Amazon rainforest.

Most birds live in the dense undercover of forest, looking for insects from the rainforest floor to the canopy. Others prefer flying insects, or fruit and flowers while some, such as the harpy eagle, capture other mammals and reptiles and birds.
Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja)2
Undoubtedly one of the most majestic Amazon birds, the harpy eagle is over a metre tall, and has a wingspan of 2 m. Its legs and feet are extraordinarily thick and powerful, while the head has a tall, blackish-grey crest of feathers. Females are about a third larger than males.

There is almost no prey too large for the harpy eagle, which feeds on monkeys (less than one-third of its diet), sloths (more than one-third of its diet) and birds.

Harpy eagles spend considerable amounts of time perched and listening. Having identified a prey, they glide toward it with claws extended and grab the victim as they swoop. Because of their larger size, females attack larger prey than males.

Although the species ranges from the rainforests of southern Central America to those of the Amazon, it is very difficult to find within this vast area. Deforestation is taking away their only habitat, and as a result, populations are declining. As the eagles are scattered over a wide area, it is impossible to obtain an accurate population estimate.

The harpy eagle is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species3.


Hummingbirds
Small, hyperactive and amazingly adapted, hummingbirds are represented by more than 300 species. Hummingbirds give the impression of always being hyperactive (they often look like large insects when seen from afar).

Because of the constant availability of at least some nectar and fruit in the rainforest, this has made it possible for several bird groups to focus exclusively on one or both foods. Hummingbirds are the only birds that are nectar feeders, and they are attracted to red, orange and yellow flowers. Males are territorial, defending favoured flowers and nectar-rich plants.

Some of their unique adaptation includes the ability to rotate their wings through a 180-degree cycle. They also have a very high metabolism, with heartbeats reaching 1,260 beats per minute. This allows some species to beat their wings 80 times a second. All this comes at a cost – hummingbirds need to make up for the energy they use and must refuel (with high-calorie nectar) often.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER
Harpia harpyja Harpy eagle im. Mato Grosso Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER
WWF HAS ONLY SINGLE USE AUTHORIZATION FOR THIS PHOTO. rel=
Toucan, Iguazu Falls National Park, Brazil. (Photo used with kind permission of the photographer)
© Gavriel JECAN
Toucan (Ramphastos species)
The toucan is a ubiquitous symbol of the Amazon, instantly recognized by its colourful bill, which is almost the same length as its body. The plumage is equally colourful, and includes patches of green, yellow, red and white. It ranges in size from 31 cm to 61 cm.

The species occurs in lowland moist forests and montane cloud forests, where it nests and roosts in tree cavities. Although toucans are heard all the time in rainforests, they are rarely seen because they mostly stay high up in the canopy.

They are primarily frugivores (fruit eaters), and prefer the ripest fruits. Toucans pick fruit with their bill and hold it at its tip. Then they tilt their head backwards and gulp the food. In addition to fruits and berries, toucans eat spiders, insects, lizards and snakes, as well as nesting birds and eggs.
Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoatzin)
This unique bird is found on the streams and oxbow lakes of the Amazon river system. About the size of a chicken, it evokes primitive birds in its size and appearance – a small head, slender neck, and a conspicuous, ragged crest at the top of the head. It is also peculiar in that it is a weak flier.

The hoatzin feeds mostly on leaves, which represent more than 80% of its diet, obtained from plants that contain toxic compounds. These are detoxified inside the bird, where the food ferments.

A communal breeder, hoatzin reproduction involves 2-7 birds in a single nesting. The non-breeding birds are called “helpers”, and help to incubate and feed the young. As a result the offspring grows more quickly, which reduces the length of time they are vulnerable from predators. When faced with danger, the young hoatzin drops from branches into the water.

The variety of Amazon bird species is amazing both in the differences seen between birds and the adaptations each one has developed. This heritage, however, is under threat as the Amazon rainforest, prime bird habitat, loses ground to pastures and cropland.



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1Kricher, 1997
21999. "Harpia harpyja" (On-line). Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 11, 2005 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/
Harpia_harpyja.html
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3BirdLife International 2004. Harpia harpyja. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. www.redlist.org . Accessed 13 October 2005.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Roger LeGUEN
Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin, French Guiana.
© WWF-Canon / Roger LeGUEN

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