by Christopher Baker

Home : Travel : Costa Rica : CR Handbook : One Article

In William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions, his great romantic novel of the American tropics, the young hero Abel is lured into the jungle by the mysterious call of an unseen bird. So stirred is he by the siren song that he follows the haunting sound deeper and deeper into the forest until he eventually discovers the source: a lovely, half-wild girl called Rima, who has learned to mimic the sounds of the birds. The birdlife of Costa Rica is so rich and so varied--and often so elusive--that at times it seems as if Rima herself is calling.

With approximately 850 recorded bird species, the country boasts one-tenth of the world's total. More than 630 are resident species; the remainder are occasionals who fly in for the winter. Birds that have all but disappeared in other areas still find tenuous safety in protected lands in Costa Rica, though many species face extinction due to deforestation. The nation offers hope for such rare jewels of the bird world as the quetzal and the scarlet macaw, both endangered species yet commonly seen in protected reserves.


Fortunately, Costa Rica's birds are not shy. Seeing them is relatively easy. Depending on season, location, and luck, you can expect to see many dozens of species on any one day. Many tour companies offer guided bird-study tours (see "Special-interest Travel and Recreation," in the "Out and About" chapter), and the country is well set up with mountain and jungle lodges which specialize in birdwatching programs (see "Mountain and Jungle Lodges," pp. 96-97).

The deep heart of the jungle is not the best place to look for birds: you cannot see well amid the complex, disorganized patterns cast by shadow and light. For best results, find a large clearing on the fringe of the forest, or a watercourse where birds are sure to be found in abundance.

There are four major "avifaunal zones," which roughly correspond to the major geographic subdivisions of the country: the northern Pacific lowlands, the southern Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands, and the interior highlands. Guanacaste's dry habitats (northern Pacific lowlands) share relatively few species with other parts of the country. This is a superlative place, however, for waterfowl: the estuaries, swamps, and lagoons which make up the Tempisque Basin support the richest freshwater avifauna in all Central America, and Palo Verde National Park, at the mouth of the Tempisque, is a birdwatcher's mecca.

The southern Pacific lowland region is home to many South American neotropical species, such as jacamars, antbirds, and, of course, parrots. Here, within the dense forests, the air is cool and dank and underwater green and alive with the sounds of birds. The bright-billed toucans--"flying bananas"--are a particular delight to watch as they pick fruit off one at a time with their long beaks, throw them in the air and catch them at the back of their throats. Costa Rica's six toucan species are among the most flamboyant of all Central American birds. That loud froglike croak is the Swainson's toucan; that noisy jumble of cries and piercing creaks could well be a congregation of gregarious chestnut-mandibled toucans.

In fact, many birds are easily heard but not seen. The three-wattled bellbird, which inhabits the cloud forests, is rarely spotted in the mist-shrouded treetops, though the male's eerie call, described by one writer as a "ventriloqual `bonk!'" (it is more like a hammer clanging on an anvil), haunts the forest as long as the sun is up. And the lunatic laughter that goes on compulsively at dusk in lowland jungles is the laughing falcon. Fortunately other species, like the tanagers, brighten the jungle, and you are likely to spot their bright plumage as you hike along trails. The tanagers' short stubby wings enable them to swerve and dodge at high speed through the undergrowth as they chase after insects.

The sheer size of Costa Rica's bird population has prompted some intriguing food-gathering methods. The jacamar snaps up insects on the wing with an audible click of its beak. One species of epicurean kite has a bill like an escargot fork which it uses to pick snails from their shells. The attila, like its namesake a ruthless killer, devours its frog victims whole after bashing them against a tree.

Other birds you might expect to see include the boobies, the rare harpy eagle (the largest of all eagles, renowned for twisting and diving through the treetops in pursuit of monkeys), pelicans, parakeets, oropendolas, woodpeckers, and a host of birds you may not recognize but whose names you will never forget: scarlet-thighed dacnis, violaceous trogons, tody motmots, laneolated monlets, lineated foliage-gleaners, and black-capped pygmy tyrants.


Of all the exotically named bird species in Costa Rica, the hummingbirds beat all contenders. Their names are poetry: the green-crowned brilliant, purple-throated mountaingem, Buffon's plummeteer, and the bold and strikingly beautiful fiery-throated hummingbird. There are more than 300 species of New World hummingbirds constituting the family Trochilidae (Costa Rica has 51), and all are stunningly pretty. The fiery-throated hummingbird, for example, is a glossy green, shimmering iridescent at close range, with dark blue tail, violet-blue chest, glittering coppery orange throat, and a brilliant blue crown set off by velvety black on the sides and back of the head. Some males take their exotic plumage one step further and are bedecked with long streamer tails and iridescent moustaches, beards, and visors.

These tiny high-speed machines are named because of the hum made by the beat of their wings. At up to 100 beats per second, the hummingbirds' wings move so rapidly that the naked eye cannot detect them. They are often seen hovering at flowers, from which they extract nectar and often insects with their long, hollow, and extensile tongues forked at the tip. Alone among birds, they can generate power on both the forward and backward wing strokes, a distinction that allows them to even fly backwards!

Understandably, the energy required to function at such an intense pitch is prodigious. The hummingbird has the highest metabolic rate per unit of body weight in the avian world (its pulse rate can exceed 1,200 beats a minute) and requires proportionately large amounts of food. One biologist discovered that the white-eared hummingbird consumes up to 850% of its own weight in food and water each day. At night, they go into "hibernation," lowering their body temperatures and metabolism to conserve energy.

Typically loners, hummingbirds bond with the opposite sex only for the few seconds it takes to mate. Many, such as the fiery-throated hummingbird, are fiercely territorial. With luck you might witness a spectacular aerial battle between males defending their territories. In breeding season, the males "possess" territories rich in flowers attractive to females: the latter gains an ample food source in exchange for offering the male sole paternity rights. Nests are often no larger than a thimble, loosely woven with cobwebs and flecks of bark and lined with silky plant down. Inside, the female will lay two eggs no larger than coffee beans.


What magnificent creatures these birds are. No protective coloration. No creeping about trying to blend in with the countryside. Macaws--the largest of the neotropical parrots--are dazzlingly colored in jackets of bright yellow and blue, green, or scarlet. Their harsh, raucous voices are filled with authority. "Even moving from branch to branch in the treetops," says one writer, "they seem arrogant and proud as emperors."

Although macaw is the common name for any of 15 species of these large, long-tailed birds found throughout Central and South America, only two species inhabit Costa Rica: the scarlet macaw (lapa roja) and the great green or Buffon's macaw (lapa verde). Though the scarlet ranges from Mexico to central South America and was once abundant on both coasts of Costa Rica, today it is found only in a few parks on the Pacific shore, and rarely on the Caribbean side, which is the home of the Buffon's macaw. Both bird populations are losing their homes to deforestation and poaching. The scarlet macaw population has declined so dramatically that it is now in danger of disappearing completely: there are only three wild populations in Central America that have a long-term chance of survival--at Carara Biological Reserve and Corcovado in Costa Rica, and Coiba Island in Panama--although macaws can also be seen with regularity at Palo Verde National Park, Santa Rosa National Park, and other forested parts of the Gulf of Nicoya and Osa Peninsula. There are an estimated 200 scarlets at Carara and 1,600 at Corcovado, where as many as 40 may be seen at one time.

As they fly overhead, calling loudly, their long, trailing tail feathers and short wings make it impossible to confuse them with other birds. They are gregarious and rarely seen alone. They are almost always paired male and female--they're monogamous for life--often sitting side by side, grooming and preening each other, and conversing in rasping loving tones, or flying two by two. However, it is impossible to tell male from female. The scarlet's bright red-orange plumage with touches of blue and yellow does not vary between the sexes or with aging.

Macaws usually nest in softwood trees, such as jallinazos, where termites have hollowed out holes. April through July, you might see small groups of macaws clambering about the upper trunks of dead trees at Corcovado, squabbling over holes and crevices. In Carara, nesting season begins in September.

Many bird books mistakenly describe macaws as feeding on fruits--they get their names because they supposedly feed on the fruits of the macaw palms. In fact, they rarely eat fruits, but prefer seeds and nuts, which they extract with a hooked nutcracker of such strength that it can split that most intractable of nuts, the Brazil nut.

Macaw Protection

Several conservation groups are working to stabilize and reestablish the scarlet macaw population. Deep in the forest of the Carara Biological Reserve, Sergio Volio (a former national park superintendent and owner of Geotur) oversees a project to build artificial nests high up in jallinazo trees beyond the reach of poachers. Although macaws are the biggest attraction at Carara, they are threatened with extinction by poachers who take the chicks to sell on the black market in the U.S., despite a ban that prohibits importing the birds. Most die, however, before they reach the United States. Volio estimates up to 95% of natural nests at the reserve are poached. Volio's is the first project that will protect the birds' breeding grounds in their natural habitat. He is currently forming a foundation to accept donations to help build the birdhouses, which cost about $100. Contact: Geotur, P.O. Box 469Y Griegia, San José 1011; tel. 234-1867, fax 253-6338.

Tsuli/Tsuli, an independent, self-supporting chapter of the Audubon Society, has an Adopte un Ave (Adopt-a-Bird) program. Tsuli/Tsuli means "Many Parrots" in the language of the Cabécar Indians. The group has an environmental education program to teach local Costa Ricans to understand and appreciate their flora and fauna, with a special emphasis on protecting birds, especially parrots, which are symbols of tropical wilderness. Contact: Tsuli/Tsuli, Audubon de Costa Rica, Apdo. 4910, San José 1000; tel. 249-1179, fax 249-1179; or P.O. Box 025216-700, Miami, FL 33102.

Tsuli Tsuli supports Richard and Marge Frisius, two experienced aviculturists who have a macaw-breeding program on the grounds of their home in Río Segundo de Alajuela. The Frisiuses have successfully raised many baby macaws using special techniques and cages. By teaching the domestically raised macaws how to find native food and then releasing them into carefully selected wilds of Costa Rica, the goal is to reestablish flocks of these magnificent birds in parts of the nation where there is still appropriate habitat for viable populations to establish themselves. The Frisiuses need at least 15 breeding pairs of macaws to establish a large gene pool. They also need to construct a large cage in which the birds can fly and forage freely (approximate cost $75,000). The couple have formed their own nonprofit organization, Amigos de las Aves, to raise money (send donations to: Apdo. 32, Río Segundo 4001).


The quetzal, or resplendent trogon, is a rare jewel of the bird world. Many birdwatchers travel to Costa Rica simply to catch site of this magnificent bird. What this pigeon-sized bird lacks in physical stature it makes up for in audacious plumage: vivid, shimmering green which ignites in the sunshine, flashing emerald to golden and back to iridescent green. In common with other bird species, the male outshines the female. He sports a fuzzy pink punk hairdo, a scintillating crimson belly, and two brilliant green tail plumes up to 24 inches long, edged in snowy white and sinuous as feather boas.

Its beauty was so fabled and the bird so elusive and shy that early European naturalists believed the quetzal was a fabrication of Central American natives. In 1861, an English naturalist, Osbert Salvin, wrote that he was "determined, rain or no rain, to be off to the mountain forests in search of quetzals, to see and shoot which has been a daydream for me ever since I set foot in Central America." Salvin, the first European to record observing a quetzal, pronounced it "unequaled for splendour among the birds of the New World," and promptly shot it. During the course of the next three decades, thousands of quetzal plumes crossed the Atlantic to fill the specimen cabinets of European collectors and adorn the fashionable milliners' shops of Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Salvin redeemed himself by authoring the awesome 40-volume tome Biologia Centrali Americana, which provided virtually a complete catalog of neotropical species.

Quetzal Culture

The quetzal has long been revered in Guatemala, where the bird graces the national shield, flag, postage stamps, and currency (which happens to be called the quetzal). It is pleasing to know that the former center of the Mayan empire still honors the magnificent bird. Early Mayans and Aztecs worshiped a god called Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and depicted him with a headdress of quetzal feathers. The bird's name is derived from quetzalli, an Aztec word meaning "precious" or "beautiful."

Mayans considered the male's iridescent green tail feathers worth more than gold, and killing the sacred bird was a capital crime. Quetzal plumes and jade, which were traded throughout Mesoamerica, were the Mayans' most precious objects. It was the color that was significant: "Green--the color of water, the lifegiving fluid. Green, the color of the maize crop, had special significance to the people of Mesoamerica," says Adrian Digby in his monograph Mayan Jades, "and both jade and the feathers of the quetzal were green."

During the colonial period, the indigenous people of Central America came to see the quetzal as a symbol of independence and freedom. Popular folklore relates how the quetzal got its dazzling blood-red breast: in 1524, when the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated the Mayan chieftain Tecun Uman, a gilt-and-green quetzal alighted on the Indian's chest at the moment he fell mortally wounded; when the bird took off again, his breast was stained with the brilliant crimson blood of the Mayan.

Archaeologists believe that the wearing of quetzal plumes was proscribed, under pain of death, for use by Mayan priests and nobility: it became a symbol of authority vested in a theocratic elite, much as only Roman nobility were allowed to wear purple silks.

Quetzal Watching

Although Costa Ricans don't worship the quetzal with the same fervor as pre-Columbian Guatemalans, the bird is most easily seen in Costa Rica, where it is protected in four national parks--Braulio Carrillo, Poás, Chirripó, La Amistad--and the Monteverde and Los Angeles cloud forest reserves. Everywhere throughout its 1,000-mile range (from southern Mexico to western Panama) it is endangered due to loss of its cloud-forest habitat. This is particularly true of the lower forests around 1,500 to 2,000 meters to which families of quetzals descend during breeding season (March-June), and where they seek dead and decaying trees in which to hollow out their nests. This is the best time to see narcissistic males showing off their tail plumes in undulating flight, or launching spiraling skyward flights which presage a plummeting dive with their tail feathers rippling behind, all part of the courtship ritual.

At other times, the wary birds aren't easily spotted. Their plumage offers excellent camouflage under the rainy forest canopy. They also sit motionless for long periods, with their vibrant red chests turned away from any suspected danger. If a quetzal knows you're close by and feels threatened, you may hear a harsh weec-weec warning call and see the male's flicking tail feathers betray his presence. The quetzal's territory spans a radius of approximately 300 meters, which the male proclaims each dawn through midmorning and again at dusk with a telltale melodious whistle--a hollow, high-pitched call of two notes, one ascending steeply, the other descending--repeated every eight to 10 minutes.

Nest holes (often hollowed out by woodpeckers) are generally about 30 feet from the ground. Within, the female generally lays two light-blue eggs, which take about 18 days to hatch. Both sexes share parental duties. By day, the male incubates the eggs while his two-foot-long tail feathers hang out of the nest. At night, the female takes over.

Although the quetzal eats insects, small frogs, and lizards, it enjoys a penchant for the fruit of the broad-leafed aguacatillo (a kind of miniature avocado in the laurel family), which depends on the bird to distribute seeds. The movement of quetzals follows the seasonal fruiting of different laurel species. Time your birdwatching visit, if possible, to coincide with the quetzals' rather meticulous feeding hours, which you can almost set your watch by. They're fascinating to watch feeding: an upward swoop for fruit is the bird's aerial signature.


Black frigate birds, with their long scimitar wings and forked tails, hang like sinister kites in the wind all along the Costa Rican coast. They hold a single position in the sky, as if suspended from invisible strings, and from this airborne perch harry gulls and terns until the latter release their catch (birders have a name for such thievery: kleptoparasitism).

Despite the sinister look imparted by its long hooked beak, the frigate bird is quite beautiful. The adult male is all black with a lustrous faint purplish-green sheen on its back (especially during the courtship season). The female, the much larger of the two, is easily distinguished by the white feathers that extend up her abdomen and the breast, and the ring of bluish mascara she wears around her eyes.

Second only to a frigate bird's concern for food is its interest in the opposite sex. It is the females who do the conspicuous searching out and selecting of mates. The hens take to the air above the rookery to look over the males, who cluster in groups atop the scrubby mangrove bushes. Whenever a female circles low over the bushes, the males react with a blatant display of wooing: they tilt their heads far back to show off their fully inflated scarlet gular pouches (appropriately shaped like hearts!), vibrate their wings rapidly back and forth, and entice the females with loud clicking and drumming sounds.

To walk through a colony of frigate birds courting is a spellbinding experience; the lusty atmosphere is palpable. You may even see pairs entwined, the male with his wings around his mate.

Once the pair is established, a honeymoon of nest-building begins. In the structured world of the frigate bird's it is the male's job to find twigs for the nest. The piratical frigates will not hesitate to steal twigs from their neighbors' nests, so the females stay home to guard it.

A single egg is laid, and each parent takes turns at one-week shifts during the eight-week incubation. The chick is closely guarded, for predatory neighbors, hawks, and owls make quick feasts of the unwary young. For five months, the dejected-looking youngsters sit immobile beneath the hot sun; even when finally airborne, they remain dependent on their parents for over a year while they learn the complex trade of air piracy.

Superb stunt flyers, frigate birds often bully other birds on the wing, pulling at their tails of their victims until the latter release or regurgitate a freshly caught meal. Frigate birds also catch much of their food themselves. You may see them skimming the water, snapping up squid, flying fish, and other morsels off the water surface. (They must keep themselves dry, as they have only a small preen gland, insufficient to oil their feathers; if they get too wet they become waterlogged and drown.)

Frigate birds are easily seen close-up en masse along the mangrove-lined shorelines of Guanacaste and the Gulf of Nicoya, sunning themselves, often in a near vertical position with wings turned "palm up."