As a sluggish day of bird-banding drew wearily to a close, Osmaildo (one of my Brazilian mateiros) approached the station with a trio of once-white bird bags. The mateiros have literally spent years of their lives in the Amazon rainforest and, as such, not much seems to faze them anymore. Thus, their dispassionate expressions betray little and I am often clueless whether they’ve just extracted their upteenth Wedge-billed Woodcreeper or White-crowned Manakin or if, perhaps, they have something more enticing up their sleeves. After all, following two weeks of banding and ~335 captures, we had caught most of the usual suspects.
But I understood enough to know this was something different and I quickly rearranged the line of bird bags and drew from the last bag. And out popped this often rather assuming bird.
Instantly, however, as if it had just been wound up or turned on, it proceeded into its other-worldly display: dramatically fanning its scarlet crest – punctuated with black and iridescent blue tips – and slowly swaying its head and neck back-and-forth across a 180º arc. It was as if it was attempting to hypnotize me, imploring me to keep my eye on the swinging watch. Even more comically, its long broad bill is cracked ajar – exposing bright orange mouth linings – and it appears to go cross-eyed as it maintains eye contact with you. Altogether, this mouth open, listing demeanor gives off a spacey vibe, like perhaps it’s not quite all there. To make matters worse, it continued to do this while I tried in vain to process the bird as quickly as possible (so that I could begin photographing it, of course). But as I attempted to assess such seemingly trivial things like fat and extent of body molt, the bird continued to put on a show. And although I have very seldom (never?) been brought to laughter while banding a bird – like a little kid during a moment of hallowed silence – I actually had to stop and wait until I had calmed down enough to continue.
Unfortunately, this display is rarely seen in the wild and, thus, the exact function(s) of this arresting exhibit aren’t well described. Royal Flycatchers normally go about business with the crest flattened and the striking colors largely or entirely concealed. However, that excessive tuft must go somewhere and they are often described as appearing “hammer-headed.” To me, it vaguely appears like they are simultaneously facing in both directions, as though the extension of the flattened crest mimics a second bill. In various forms, this display has been witnessed in a number of different settings from birds in the wild: during preening, a male approaching a female at the nest, in both sexes prior to, during, and following copulation, as well as agonistic encounters with other Royal Flycatchers and different species. Perhaps recent1 (which I could not access) and ongoing work out of the University of Windsor will help to further shed light on this intriguing display. Now, as to the question about why these birds also choose to show us this fine presentation while being manhandled is still very much open for interpretation.
Depending upon your taxonomic disposition, this bird represents either a population of the Royal Flycatcher – that ranges broadly from Mexico south to the Atlantic Forest of southeast Brazil – or is its own distinct species, the Amazonian Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus coronatus). Any way you slice it, however, there is no doubt that it’s a unique flycatcher with a special flare for the dramatic.
Click to watch a brief movie of the Royal Flycatcher in display mode.
- Rieveley KD. 2010. Mutual ornamentation, sex-specific behavior, and multifunctional traits in neotropical royal flycatchers (Onychorhynchus coronatus). [MSc thesis.]. [Windsor (Ontario, Canada)]: University of Windsor.