Cotingas: Cotingidae

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COTINGAS: Cotingidae



Cotingas are a family of brightly colored Central and South American birds that are so closely related to tyrant flycatchers that there has been some disagreement about which family some of the species belong to. Cotingas are also related to the manakin family.

Members of the cotinga family vary greatly in size and physical appearance. They range from tiny, 3-inch (8-centimeter) birds to 20-inch (50-centimeter) birds the size of crows. In the smaller species, the females tend to be larger and heavier than the male birds, but in the larger species, the females are smaller than the males. Males and females usually look different. The males are more colorful than the females.

Male cotingas tend to be brightly colored with shiny, jewel-like feathers of red, orange, blue, green, and purple, depending on the species. These birds are some of the most attractive, colorful birds in the world. In addition to their brilliant feathers, many species of cotinga have evolved odd decorative features, probably important in attracting a mate. These include oversized head crests, inflatable throat sacs, and wattles, which are extra flaps of skin and feathers that hang from the neck.

Cotingas are also known for their voices, which can be quite loud. For example, the call of the screaming piha, sometimes called the "voice of the Amazon," sounds like a loud wolf whistle. It can be heard for more than half a mile (1 kilometer). Bellbirds, another group of cotingas, make a distinctive ringing sound as if someone had hit a metal bell. These are some of the loudest of any birdcalls. Although cotingas can be loud, they are often shy and difficult to see. Species that are brightly colored tend to have quieter calls than those that have duller, darker feathers.


Cotingas live in southern Mexico, almost all of Central America, and in South America as far south as Argentina. The greatest number of species live in the Amazon River basin of Brazil and the Orinoco River basin of Venezuela.


Most cotingas prefer lowland tropical rainforests where they live in the middle and upper levels of the forest. Some of the larger species prefer living along rivers and streams. Only a few species live in mountainous areas at higher elevations.


Cotingas have evolved large mouths that can open wide in order to eat fruit and other berries. Smaller species eat fruits almost exclusively. Larger species also eat insects, especially when fruits are less available. The seeds inside many fruits pass unharmed through the digestive system of the birds. Smaller seeds are eliminated. Larger seeds are regurgitated (re-GER-jih-tate-ud), vomited. The birds help to spread the seeds over a large area, increasing the range and diversity of plants in the areas where they live.


Some species of cotinga, especially those of medium size, participate in spectacular courtship rituals, behaviors that lead to mating. When a male wants to attract a female, he removes the leaves and twigs on the ground in a small area. This area is called the lek or lek court. Several males will then go to these areas and sing, call, and dance by hopping, making short flights, and fanning or making noise with their feathers. This activity is called lekking. Some species lek on branches above the ground rather then on the forest floor.

Females are attracted to the lek by the calls or wing sounds the males make. They watch the display, and then choose a mate. Once the female makes her choice, she flies away with the chosen male. The male will mate with as many females as possible during the breeding season. He does not stay with the female and rarely helps with building a nest. Females incubate, sit on and warm, the eggs and raise the young alone. Not every species of cotinga leks. Some use fancy flying maneuvers (mah-NOO-verz) to attract mates, while others display their interest in mating individually rather than in groups.

Cotingas build a variety of different types of nests ranging from heaps of twigs in the fork of a tree to shallow woven cups. Generally birds in this family lay a single egg that hatches after about a month. The chicks are born blind and without feathers. The mother feeds the chicks for about a month until they mature enough to leave the nest.

Cotingas tend to be non-aggressive, passive, with their own and other bird species except when nesting. They do not protect a particular territory, and they often feed in the same tree as other birds.


Because of their bright, beautiful colors, cotingas have been hunted for their feathers, which are used as ornaments by native people. They may also be hunted for food. The feathers of some species are used in making fishing flies, lures for fish. The beauty of these birds draws birdwatchers and ecotourists, travel for the purpose of studying wildlife and the environment, from around the world, and may add indirectly to the local tourist economy.


The kinglet calyptura, also called the kinglet cotinga, is Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. It lives in only one place in Brazil and its population is tiny. This bird had not been seen in over one hundred years and was thought to be extinct until it was re-discovered in 1996.


Cotingas have some of the loudest voices in the bird world. The calfbird, also called the capuchinbird, gives a cry that sounds like the mooing of a young cow. It uses special air sacs to amplify the sound and make carry over a longer distance.

Four other species of Brazilian cotinga, the white-winged cotinga, the yellow-billed cotinga, the banded cotinga, and the buff-throated purpletuft are all Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Ten other species are considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. The population of these birds is declining rapidly because their habitat is being destroyed, and their small populations are being fragmented, separated.


Physical characteristics: Spangled contingas are 8.5-inch (22-centimeter) long birds that live in the rainforest. The males are brightly colored. Their backs are brilliant turquoise blue spattered with black. They have black wings, a black tail, and a large purple patch under their throat. The females are dull, with dark brown backs and light brown, spotted breasts.

Geographic range: Spangled cotingas are found in the Amazon River basin of Brazil, the rainforest of Venezuela, French Guiana, Guyuana, eastern Colombia, and northwestern Bolivia.

Habitat: Spangled cotingas live in the canopy under the treetops of lowland rainforests, rarely above 2,000 feet (600 meters) in elevation.

Diet: Like all cotingas, these birds prefer fruit and berries. They often search for food in the same trees as other members of the cotinga family.

Behavior and reproduction: Not much is known about the mating behavior of spangled cotingas, however, it is believed that they form loose leks during the mating season. During courtship, males often spread themselves flat along a branch, moving their wings and calling to females. Females build loose platform nests of sticks in the tops of trees and care for the young alone.

Spangled cotingas and people: These birds are hunted for their feathers, which are used in making flies for fishing and as decoration by native tribes.

Conservation status: The spangled cotinga is not currently threatened with extinction. ∎


Physical characteristics: Amazonian umbrellabirds are black birds with a whitish eye and strong black claws. They are about the size of a crow, 18 inches (46 centimeters) in length. Their most impressive physical feature is the tall crest of hair-like feathers with white shafts that stands up over its head like an umbrella. In fact, the bird's Latin scientific name roughly means "fancy head." This bird also has a long wattle of feathers that hangs down from its throat to its belly. Amazonian umbrellabirds are known for their loud, carrying voice.

Geographic range: Amazonian umbrellabirds are found in the Amazon river basin of Brazil and Venezuela, northwest Bolivia, and eastern Colombia.

Habitat: This species prefers to live along rivers. However, near the edge of the Andes mountains, it lives in the forest at elevations up to 4,300 feet (1,300 meters).

Diet: Umbrellabirds primarily eat fruit and berries, but will eat insects, spiders, and insect larvae when fruit is not available.

Behavior and reproduction: Amazonian umbrellabirds are slow-flying birds that spend a lot of time sitting still on branches. During mating season, males form leks spread far apart. The female builds a loose nest of twigs high in a tree and raises a single chick.

Amazonian umbrellabirds and people: These birds are heard more often than they are seen. They are mainly of interest to birdwatchers.

Conservation status: Amazonian umbrellabirds are not threatened or at risk of becoming extinct at any time in the foreseeable future. ∎


Physical characteristics: Male Guianan cocks-of-the-rock are bright orange birds with large orange crests on their heads. They have black and white wing bars and black on their tails. Females are a drab brown color.

Geographic range: Guianan cocks-of-the-rock are found in southern Guyana, Colombia, Venezuela and in northern Brazil.

Habitat: Guiana cocks-of-the-rock live in lowland forests below 4,900 feet (1,500 meters).

Diet: Cocks-of-the-rock prefer fruit and berries, but will eat insects if other food is scarce.

Behavior and reproduction: Male cocks-of-the-rock clear spots on the forest floor to form large leks where they sing loudly and perform mating dances for females. Predators such as hawks, jaguars, ocelots, and boa constrictors are attracted to these leks. Successful males will mate with many females during the breeding season. Females raise their young alone, building cup-shaped nests of clay and plants along rock faces or in holes on cliffs. They lay two eggs that hatch in about a month.

Guianan cocks-of-the-rock and people: In the early twentieth century, hunters captured these birds and sold them as pets. Today they are attractive to birdwatchers and ecotourists who want to observe nature without disturbing it. In this way they may add to the local tourist economy. Native tribes hunt these birds for their feathers and as food. Fly fishermen use their feathers in making fishing flies.

Conservation status: Guianan cocks-of-the-rock are not threatened or at risk of extinction. ∎



Hilty, Steven L. Birds of Venezuela. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Kircher, John. A Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants, and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics, 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ridgley, Robert S., and Guy Tudor. The Birds of South America. Vol 2, The Suboscine Passerines. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Web sites:

"Cotingas, Bellbirds, Becards, Cock-of-the-rock." Cornell University. (accessed on May 4, 2004).

"Ecology of the Cock-of-the-Rock." Ecology Online. (accessed on May 4, 2004).