Jacamars: Galbulidae

views updated

JACAMARS: Galbulidae



Jacamars (ZHAK-uh-mahrz) are glossy, graceful-appearing birds that look like hummingbirds but are really related to woodpeckers, puffbirds, and toucans. They are very noticeable birds because of their jewel-like colors and long, sharp bill. Their bright plumage (feathers) consists of metallic green or blue upperparts, light patches on their throat or breast, a metallic green head, and reddish to dull brown or blackish underparts. Some species have color differences ranging from purple to red or chestnut brown. In many species, the bill is three times as long as the head.

The birds have short legs (except for one species) and zygodactyl (zye-guh-DACK-tuhl) feet (two toes face forward and two point backwards), which helps them grab branches and food while hunting. Unique features of this family include a long appendix (small outgrowth from large intestine), no gall bladder (sac that stores bile), a bare preen gland (oil-secreting sac at tail base), and a long, thin tongue. They have a long tail with ten to twelve tail feathers that are of different lengths and short wings with ten primary feathers. Males and females have similar plumage, although some female species are less colorful on head and neck. Adults are 5.1 to 12.2 inches (13 to 31 centimeters) long.


Jacamars range from southern Mexico in Central America to northern Argentina in South America.


Jacamars live near tropical rainforests, stream or riverine (around a river) forests, and savanna (flat grassland) woodlands. They especially prefer Neotropical rainforests, the geographic area of plant and animal life east, west, and south of Mexico's central plateau that includes Central and South America and the West Indies. They are found generally at low altitudes, at the edges of forests, areas of fallen trees and clay or sandy stream banks, and within areas that contain colorful butterflies.


Jacamars prefer to eat large, showy, flying insects such as blue morpho butterflies, hawk moths, and venomous insects such as wasps, ants, and sawflies. Their diet also consists of other types of butterflies and moths, dragonflies, and flying beetles. They grab prey out of the air with their long, sharp (forceps-like) bill. They do not like butterflies that use body chemicals to defend themselves.


Jacamars make expert maneuvers (mah-NOO-verz) as they swoop down from perches to capture colorful prey in mid-air. They spend most time on branches, staying alert for flying insects. After catching prey, jacamars grab the winged insect away from its wings or stinger in order not to become blinded by its fluttering wings or injured by its stinger. After perching, they beat it against a tree branch to kill it, and then remove the wings and stingers before eating it. They live generally in pairs, perching and hunting in the same area. Some species join in small family groups. Jacamars use a variety of calls to communicate, such as trills, squeals, whistles, and short songs, which are generally considered pleasant.

Male jacamars use a series of sharp calls during breeding season to attract a mate. The monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; having one mate) pair builds nest holes in some species, while in other species only females do the work. The birds sometime drill holes for nests in deep riverbanks, using their bill to break up the soil and then their feet to remove soil by kicking it backwards. Other nest locations are on earthen banks or roots of fallen trees, while some use termite nests if other sites are unavailable. The nest occurs at the end of the tunnel in a horizontal, oval-shaped chamber. Tunnels are 12 to 36 inches (30 to 91 centimeters) long and about 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide. No materials are used for the nest, although eggs are often covered with a layer of partially digested food brought up from the parents' stomachs. Nests are used many times.

Females lay one to four round, glossy, white eggs that are not marked. Both parents incubate (sit on) the eggs during the day for one to three hours at a time. At night, the female incubate alone while the male defends the nest. Jacamars seldom leave eggs alone. While the female sits on the eggs, the male will feed his mate several times a day. The incubation period (time that it takes to sit on eggs before hatching) is twenty to twenty-three days. Newborn jacamars are born with white down. Both parents feed the young with insects. The nestling period, or the time it takes to take care of the young unable to leave the nest, is nineteen to twenty-six days. When they are ready to leave the nest, their plumage looks like the parents.


The name jacamar is derived from the Tupi word jacama-ciri, which is used by Brazilian natives.


The local name for rufous-tailed jacamars in northern Pantanal (a region in southwestern Brazil) is bico de agulha, which means "needle beak." This nickname is in reference to the species' long bill that helps in getting a hold of a butterfly's body and keeping it away from their large flapping wings that might blind them. The thin bill also helps in catching and eating bees without getting stung in the face.


The three-toed jacamar is listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, and another species, the coppery-chested jacamar, is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. All species of jacamars are threatened by habitat loss. For example, in Brazil intensive clearing of vegetation in forests has caused a decline in populations.


Physical characteristics: Rufous-tailed jacamars have metallic coppery green upperparts, pale buffy chins, a white or buff patch on the throat, which is sometimes speckled green, rufous (reddish) to chestnut underparts, blackish primary feathers, and long graduated central tail feathers. Females are slightly duller and paler than males, with a cinnamon-buff chin and throat and dark cinnamon-buff underwing coverts (small feather around base of quill). They have a very long, slender bill, sometimes called "needle beak", that is about 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) long. Adults are about 7.5 to 9.8 inches (19 to 25 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.6 an 1.0 ounces (18 to 28 grams).

Geographic range: Rufous-tailed jacamars are probably the most widespread jacamars with a distribution from southern Mexico to northern Argentina including Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Habitat: Rufous-tailed jacamars are found on the edge of forests, in woodlands and thickets, and near streams and rivers.

Diet: Their diet includes flying insects that are caught in midair. Once caught, they beat the food against a branch before eating it.

Behavior and reproduction: Rufous-tailed jacamars live alone or in pairs, and like to forage from shrubbery near the ground. They do not migrate, but they do make short journeys. The birds signal danger or anxiety with a sharp trill. Males regularly feed females during courtship. They use former termite nests or earthen banks for their breeding sites. Both mates and females dig out nests to a depth of 7.9 to 19.7 inches (20 to 50 centimeters). Females lay one to four white eggs in ground-hole nests. The incubation period is ninteen to twenty-three days, while the nestling period is nineteen to twenty-six days. Both males and females incubate and take care of young. Nestlings hatch with whitish down feathers and are fed insects, especially butterflies.

Rufous-tailed jacamars and people: There is no known significance between people and rufous-tailed jacamars.

Conservation status: Rufous-tailed jacamars are not threatened. They are widespread and common, being able to change the way they live while in different habitats. ∎


Physical characteristics: Coppery-chested jacamars have metallic green upperparts, a dark rufous colored-throat, dark brown eyes, a distinctive yellowish orange eye ring, a copper-colored tail, and grayish feet. Males and females look alike except that females have a dark rufous-colored throat, and less visible coloring around the eyes. Their heavy bill is about 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) long. Adults are 9.0 to 9.5 inches (23 to 24 centimeters) long, and weigh about 1.1 ounces (31 grams).

Geographic range: Coppery-chested jacamars are not seen very often because there are not very many of them. They have been seen at a few sites in Ecuador, southern Colombia, Amazonian Brazil, and along the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes at altitudes of up to 5,100 feet (1,550 meters), the highest elevations of all jacamars.

Habitat: They are found in montane (mountain) tropical rainforests.

Diet: Their diet consists of a wide variety of flying insects. They prefer to hunt from one favorite perch, watching carefully for possible prey. When seeing a possible target, they capture the flying insect as it flies through the air.

Behavior and reproduction: Coppery-chested jacamars are very alert hunters, as are all jacamars. They give a series of three to five loud calls such as "pee pee-pee-pe-pe-pee-pee-pee." Females lay one to four white eggs in curved ground-hole nests that are carefully hidden. When born, young are covered with white down. The incubation period is twenty to twenty-three days. Males and females share in incubation activities, along with taking care of the chicks as they grow.

Coppery-chested jacamars and people: There is no known significance between people and coppery-chested jacamars.

Conservation status: Coppery-chested jacamars are listed as Vulnerable. There are few areas where coppery-chested jacamars are found and their populations are low. They are found mostly in Colombia and the eastern slope of the Andes. Their populations are being reduced due to habitat loss, mainly from the loss of forested areas. ∎



del Hoyo, Josep, et al., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.

Dickinson, Edward C., ed. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Harrison, Colin James Oliver. Birds of the World. London and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

Perrins, Christopher M., and Alex L. A. Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Web sites:

Steve Metz Photography. "Rufous-tailed Jacamar." http://www.stevemetzphotography.com/photo%20pages/Trinidad&Tobago/Rufoustailed%20Jacamar.htm (accessed on July 19, 2004).

More From encyclopedia.com