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Birds of Tropical America

Birds of Tropical America
A Watcher's Introduction to Behavior, Breeding, and Diversity
Illustrations by Mimi Hoppe Wolf

Newly reissued—the guide to neotropical bird behavior that picks up where field guides leave off.

Series: Mildred Wyatt-Wold Endowment in Ornithology and the Natural World

April 2005
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312 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 line drawings |

Birds of Tropical America was published by Chapters Publishing in 1994 and went out of print in 1997. UT Press is pleased to reissue it with a new epilogue and updated references.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Dreams Meet Reality in the American Tropics: A Preface
  • Avian Addresses: Structure of a Rainforest
  • Bird Community Tropical Diversity: Why So Many Bird Species in Tropical Forests?
  • Ghosts of Rainforests Past: Amazonian Biogeography
  • High-Andean Genealogy: Unraveling Ice Age Secrets
  • Tropical Travelers: Migration Within the Tropics
  • The Clubbiest of Clubs: Life in a Mixed-Species Flock
  • Antbirds Don't Eat Ants: Rhythms and Rituals at Ant Swarms
  • Who Is the Fairest? Colorfulness in Tropical and Temperate Birds
  • Fruit of the Land: Birds, Fruit and Seed Dispersal
  • Anatomy of a Fruit Eater: Foraging Tactics of Fruit-Eating Birds
  • A Good Song and Dance: Alternative Life-Styles of Manakins and Cotingas
  • Territories or Traplines? Hummingbird Foraging Strategies
  • Cold Reality: Highland Hummingbirds
  • Sallying Forth: A Flycatcher Baedeker
  • Finding a Needle in the Haystack: A Vulture's View of Paradise
  • The Costs and Benefits of Growing Old: Life and Love Among the Caciques
  • Sound Strategies: Sopranos Should Sing From the Treetops
  • Perilous Paradise: Tropical River Islands
  • In Search of a Season: When Do Tropical Birds Nest?
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Steven Hilty is a professional guide with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, the largest international birding tour organizer in the world. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and is a Research Associate at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.


Our destination, following a grueling daylong hike, was supposed to be the ranger's house and headquarters of Colombia's Cueva de Los Guacharos National Park. In drizzling rain, I stared at the decrepit-looking cabin in the clearing in front of us. Something seemed wrong. Weeds and tall grass crowded the neglected yard.


"We have arrived!" our Colombian guide Rubén announced with an air of authority. He was already untying our two bulky packs from the mules.


"Are you sure this is the place?" I asked.


"Si Señor! This is the park guard's house."


I wasn't so sure. Some boards on the porch were broken, and I stepped over a gaping hole in the floor and peered inside. An old woodburning stove leaned against one wall, a small wooden table with a broken leg against another. There was an old bench, rough-hewn and unpainted like the cabin, and an empty aguardiente bottle on the floor. Outside the window, I heard chipping notes of a small party of common bush-tanagers settling into a shrub for the night. A peculiar sensation—one of impending panic and confusion—flashed through my mind. I whirled around just as Rubén dropped the last bag on the ground, and with an ear-splitting yell, slapped the mules on the butt with a long harness strap. They bolted from the yard and disappeared down the trail into the forest.


"This place is abandoned! We'll be stranded! Quick! See if you can catch the mules," I yelled to my wife Beverly, but, she was already on the run after them.


In a moment, Beverly returned, tugging on the reins of the mules, and with Rubén still protesting that this was our destination, I brushed him aside and began reloading the packs.


"We're going on," I said, though it was nearly nightfall and I had no idea how much farther ahead the park ranger's house might be—or even if Rubén had led us up the right trail. I hoped I sounded convincing.


We had arrived only the day before in the little Andean town of Palestina—just as the funeral ceremony of a shooting victim was taking place. The atmosphere was tense and solemn. Despite the town's unsmiling mood, a guide and mules were relatively easy to secure, but there was no hotel and no restaurant. We made do with some crackers, tins of tuna and soft drinks and were offered the use of a storage room for sleeping—sort of a tack room, campesino-style—with saddles, packs, feed bags, some benches and an assortment of chickens roosting overhead. Sleep was fitful, and long before dawn, we left with Rubén for the 16-mile hike to the park.


For the first few miles, the trail was dry and easy to walk. Dawn broke with a rush of bird song, and I stopped frequently to write notes and make tape recordings of these songs. As we switchbacked higher, the trail deteriorated, becoming steep, muddy and so stomped full of holes from mule trains that walking became extremely difficult. The trail also became slick, and I worried about falling. A flock of scaly-naped parrots wheeled overhead. Somewhere in the distance, a mountain-toucan was yelping but I barely looked up now as I strained onward, my legs burning and fatigue blurring my vision, hardly noticing the beautiful forested hills that now replaced pastures and clearings.


Beverly, riding one of the mules, was far ahead. We passed the last farmer's cabin sometime in midafternoon, and the trail continued upward. The scenery was fantastic; trees were gardens of orchids, mosses and bromeliads, and mixed-species flocks with dizzying assortments of colorful tanagers swirled overhead. But our guide Rubén, a man of these mountains, saw the rain-streaked skies and fading light of late afternoon and, perhaps watching our slow progress with apprehension, struck a bargain with his conscience and decided to abandon us by dropping our bags in front of an empty cabin high on a cloud-forest slope above Colombia's Magdalena Valley. Maybe he thought we would be too tired to notice this wasn't the place. Standing in the rain, exhausted, and staring at that decrepit little cabin, I almost didn't notice. It had been such a long walk that just completing the trip seemed almost too good to be true. And it was.


We stumbled forward in near darkness and squinted at a tiny point of light far across the valley. This was surely the park guard's place. I estimated it would take at least two more hours to reach the house for our progress was now slowed by the rain, and we had only a single small lamp to light the way. Ahead, there was a narrow wooden bridge suspended across a chasm so deep that, in the darkness and rain, we could not see the rushing water far below. I took a deep breath and started across.


Cueva de Los Guacharos—Cave of the Oilbirds—was the name given to this remote park, established in 1960 by the Colombian government to protect the country's largest colony of oilbirds. Over 5,000 pairs of these stranger-than-fiction birds crowd rocky ledges inside the massive cave entrance; hundreds more spill over onto the cliff face outside the cave entrance, each pair vying for a tiny piece of rock on which to sleep away the day or to lay their eggs. Leaving the safety of the cave at dusk, they boil out in a screaming, seething mass—thousands of them sounding their strange stream of clicks and fluttering off on three-foot-long wings into the shadowy clutches of the night. They are the only nocturnal fruit-eating birds in the world.


Oilbirds may be among the park's most famous inhabitants, but I was attracted to this remote park for other reasons as well. Fueled by tales of black tinamous, wattled guans, lyre-tailed nightjars and other species so rare they were little more than myth, I had come here to gather information on these and other little-known species for a forthcoming book on the birds of Colombia. This was one of many such expeditions I undertook to some of Colombia's most remote corners.


Such peripatetic behavior is not unusual among ornithologists, for even in northern latitudes, one must visit many habitats and geographical locations in order to see the birds in a region or country. In tropical latitudes, it is even more important to visit many areas because tropical birds, on average, have smaller distributions than do those in temperate latitudes. Thus, for an ornithologist wishing to learn something about the birds of a country like Colombia, which has approximately 1,700 species (all of North America, by comparison, has only about half that many); it is necessary to visit many different places.


We stumbled up the last remaining steps of the trail and onto the porch of the remote guard outpost. Fortunately, the last half kilometer of the trail was "corduroy"—a trail of sawed logs laid side by side across the trail. Trails constructed in this manner, often of palms because they resist rotting, are common in the Andes, and though slippery, they are an improvement over mud wallows churned up by the hooves of mules. Our guide remained for the obligatory cup of agua panela (hot water with a lump of brown cane sugar), which in a tradition of the Colombian Andes, is always offered to visitors. He then disappeared into the black and rainy night.


Early the next morning, I was out recording the songs of white-backed fire-eyes that lived in mossy thickets behind the park buildings. Over the next few weeks, working in the forest from dawn to dusk, I tape-recorded songs and obtained data on the habits and foraging behavior of many birds that lived in this cool, subtropical forest at 6,000 feet in elevation.


I was not birding here, for my pace would have been much too slow for those only interested in accumulating a long list. Instead, I tried to remain with each bird I saw for as long as possible, writing down, in a kind of scientific shorthand, everything that it did. What kind of habitat does it prefer? At what height above ground does it forage? How does it forage—by sallying forth to snap up prey from foliage, by reaching for prey from a perch, by hovering for small berries? Does it forage with mixed-species flocks? Is it shy or easy to observe? What are its field marks?


During the evening, I organized my notes in permanent notebooks. Tape recordings might be replayed and transcribed as well. Each day brought little discoveries—a new song, a behavior not previously noticed, perhaps a bird completely new to the area.


Gathering data for the birds of Colombia project spanned more than half a decade, and the fieldwork took me throughout Colombia. Often it was more an exercise in patience and perseverance than in exciting discoveries and clever data collection. Once, a friend and I were marooned for three days in a small town east of the Colombian Andes. Each day, we went to the little airport with buoyed spirits and anticipation, only to while away the day playing games, reading and drinking beer. At the end of the day, the response was always the same: "God willing the plane will come tomorrow.


Finally, of course, it did come—on the fourth day—and then, plagued with mechanical problems, it was barely able to leave. A large bucket placed under one engine to catch the dripping oil should have scared us off, but in the naiveté of our youth, we climbed aboard—eager for the chance to escape the confines of this dirty little town. The piston-driven engine finally coughed, then started, belching tremendous clouds of blue smoke that engulfed the plane. On the flight to Bogotá, I sat by the window, transfixed, as an oil slick grew to ominous proportions, covering first the side of the engine, and eventually half of the wing, with an ugly series of fused black streaks.


Today, I view delays in modern airports with a more sanguine perspective than some, as I am reminded of those wasted days of waiting and of the smiling face of an elderly lady that sold food, candy and drinks from a kiosk at that airport. During the long wait, we got to know her well—we were, in fact, among her most frequent customers. One day, as temperatures soared within the little tin-roofed building where we waited, we must have looked particularly tired, sweaty and dejected because she looked at us with a face lined and brown beyond its years and said, "The United States is rich and it has everything. Why do you gringos come here? Is it because you want to learn how to suffer?" She would never have understood my explanation. How could I tell her—someone whose daily income barely buys enough food for the next day—that I had traveled all the way to her country just to study birds?


I went to Colombia in 1971, a graduate student eager to begin research on tropical birds, and wound up spending 21 months there—15 at one locality in the Western Andes—before returning to the university. The site, a four-mile mule trip from the last road, was on a high ridge overlooking the Anchicayá Valley.


During those months, that ridge and valley were mine-in spirit if not actually in fact—for I worked there as a guest of the Corporación Autónoma del Valle del Cauca, an organization much like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States. They provided my wife and me with pack mules and a house, which we shared with a forest guard and one or more laborers. The house was rotten and cockroach-infested, but the tin roof kept out the rain, and the view of the cloud-filled valley just beyond the house was breathtaking.


Biological field research is partly an exercise in discipline. It is repetitive and sometimes tedious. Furthermore, the research results of field naturalists are often messier than those of their laboratory-bound counterparts who have the luxury of being able to control unwanted variables in an experiment. In a natural environment, a researcher's inability to control many variables often clouds the results. It is a problem that plagues even the most cleverly designed research, and it makes the findings of the many scientists whose work is discussed later in this book all the more remarkable.


Naturalists working in remote tropical areas must often contend with biting insects, sickness, hostile political environments and a lack of almost every conceivable modern convenience. Most naturalists accept these limitations in stride—perhaps even welcome the challenges that accompany them—for they offer a rare opportunity in our modern world to take charge of one's destiny. But within the last decade or so, excellent research facilities have become available in several neotropical locations. Consequently, some naturalists now see less of the pioneer than others when they look in the mirror.


There were many trips after Cueva de Los Guacharos—Mitú, Quibdó, Puerto Inídiro, Puerto Asís, Cúcuta, Barrancabermega, Fusagasugá, Isnós, Junín, Tumaco and so on—unfamiliar places with names strange and difficult to pronounce for English speakers. Some trips were more adventurous or more scientifically productive than others, but on each, I learned something about the birdlife of this magnificent country.


When I first began working in Colombia, I could identify few of the birds I saw. I carried notebooks full of written descriptions, crude sketches, even colored-pencil drawings back to museums and then spent hours sorting through trays of specimens trying to identify what I had seen. Sometimes a month or two passed before I would be able to check a bird's identification—only to discover I had failed to note some critical field mark. So, it was back into the field for another look—a far cry from today when modern guidebooks and tape recordings make most identifications possible almost immediately.


Once, in a moment of discouragement after a particularly tiring expedition, I wrote in my journal, "The thieves steal your equipment, the humidity ruins your film, the food makes you sick and the insects drive you crazy. Sometimes the people are cussed and you must always wait until mañana. The buses haul you like cattle, drive like maniacs and still they are late. I have returned so tired I couldn't eat and it's either pouring rain or a blizzard of dust. Worse still, the forest is disappearing so fast you have to run to catch it. But there are so many birds and so much to learn one could spend an eternity here."


These trips were eventually followed by a number of organized birding and natural history tours that I led to many parts of Colombia. This broadened my field experience, especially my field-identification skills, because questions are often hammered, rapid fire, at naturalist guides throughout the day. Some of these trips were better organized than others, but through it all, I felt that Colombia was one of the most fascinating places in which a naturalist could ever hope to work. It was not a perfect world, for dreams and reality were not always the same, but it was a place where a naturalist could easily allow himself to be seduced by great ornithological riches.


This book is about the lives of birds in the American Tropics. It is written for naturalists and travelers who want to know more than the names of tropical birds. In a sense, it was written by them, for it was the questions from hundreds of people that have traveled with me, when I was their naturalist and guide in the Neotropics, that defined the scope of this book.


Thousands of people now travel to tropical latitudes to see the rainforest and some of its remarkable birds and other wildlife. Most go for pleasure and curiosity, and a few go to study or conduct research; but in whatever capacity they travel, each will, by their visit, better understand the tropical rainforest and the world we share. All one needs is the curiosity to ask why, for that is where science begins.


But tropical environments are enormously complex and dynamic, and it is often difficult to answer even simple questions about tropical environments. Furthermore, the conclusions that scientists reach often lack generality. A bird may occur in several habitats and at different elevations, and in each place, it forages in different plants, eats different foods and interacts with a different community of competitors. Consequently, some of its behaviors and even its appearance may change.


To reconcile this complexity with our goal of understanding how some things work in tropical bird communities, there is an inherent risk of oversimplification. In this regard, readers should bear in mind the lim itations of science and scientists, for all things will not be exactly as they are described in this book. And while many questions remain, much progress has been made in understanding the birds of tropical America.




Birds of Tropical America offers a comprehensive look into the lives of some of the most fascinating birds in the world. The book will entertain and educate the amateur birder and professional ornithologist alike and would be a valuable addition to libraries at home and university.”

“Hilty, who has led birding expeditions to Central and South America and the Caribbean, supplies not a field guide to species identification but rather a natural history of tropical birds. He writes about tropical diversity, nesting habits, the structure of a rain forest bird community, biogeography, Andean genealogy, bird migration within the tropics, bird color and patterns, seed dispersal, foraging techniques, courtship rituals, and song patterns. This is a fascinating book for enthusiastic birders and stay-at-home naturalists alike.”

“[Hilty] deals with such fascinating topics as why there are so many species in tropical America, why antbirds don’t eat ants, why there are so many flycatchers, why tropical birds are so colorful (or not), how hummingbirds survive and even prosper in the Andes, and what makes manakins and cotingas do their curious songs and dances. He writes with knowledge, grace, and humor. . . . After [Alexander] Skutch, Hilty is the finest synthesizer and popularizer of the life of Neotropical birds.”


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