Motmots: Momotidae

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MOTMOTS: Momotidae



Motmots are impressive-looking, robust birds that look somewhat like kingfishers. Male and female motmots have a similar appearance. The birds have bright shades of green and blue colors, a black mask, and a long racquet-tipped tail in most species.

The longish, powerful bill curves slightly downward at the tip, and, in most species, the bill has notches like saw teeth along the edges that are used for cutting. The tongue is somewhat long. Legs are short, with each foot having three front toes and a rear toe. The middle front toe is almost completely joined to the inner toe.

The short wings are rounded. Plumage (feathers) is bright green or turquoise green on the back and tail of all species, with specks of soft blue or reddish brown on the wings and tail. Some species have brilliant blue or emerald stripes along the side of the head. There is a mixture of browns and greens on the underbody.

Several species have green or brown crowns (feathers at the top of the head) but most species have crowns of turquoise, blue, or black. Several species have a black spot on the breast. All birds have a black mark through or near the eyes; in some species, the mark is accented by thin turquoise stripes above and below. A group of black feathers at the chin and throat is characteristic of all motmots.

The tail is broad and long and sharply tapers at the base. The central pair of feathers is extra long. Barbs (parts of a feather) near the tail fall off readily, resulting in the shaft looking bare in spots. At these empty spots, a small oval disk remains.

Motmots are 6 to 21 inches (16 to 53 centimeters) long, and weigh between 0.9 and 7.4 ounces (25 and 210 grams).


Motmots are found from northeastern Mexico through most of tropical South America, as far as northern Argentina. Honduras contains seven species, while Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua each have six species. Venezuela, the Guianas, and Suriname have only one species.


Motmots are mainly found in tropical or mountainous forests and woodlands. Although most species are lowland dwellers, the blue-throated motmot ranges from 4,900 to 10,000 feet (1,500 to 3,100 meters) in middle America, and the highland motmot ranges between 4,100 and 7,200 feet (1,250 and 2,200 meters) in the South American Andes. Most motmots inhabit the midstory or understory (rather than the overstory, or highest trees) of forests or woodlands.


Motmots eat invertebrates, or animals without a backbone (such as beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, centipedes, cicadas [suh-KAY-duhz], crabs, dragonflies, earthworms, mantids, millipedes, spiders, scorpions, and snails), small vertebrates, or animals with a backbone (such as frogs, lizards, nestling birds, small fishes, and small snakes), and fruits (such as the fruit of figs, heliconia, incense, palms, and nutmegs). It appears that the larger the species, the more fruit it has in its diet.

Motmots secure food in different ways, depending on the size of the species. Smaller species use sit-and-wait strategies and secure prey that is flying, while larger species fly in their search for prey that is usually on the ground. Once caught, prey is beaten against a perch with their strong bills in order to crush it. Indigestible food is regurgitated (re-GER-jih-tate-ud) as pellets. Some species follow trains of army ants that disturb insects, allowing them to grab the insects.


Motmots appear to be solitary (living alone), but maintain pair bonds (bonds between a mated pair) throughout their lives. When disturbed, a motmot twitches its tail. Motmots are not very active, and are hard to see when they remain still within the forest. They are inactive at night and active during dawn and dusk. Calling is most active during the early morning. Short migrations sometimes occur for motmots; they may leave breeding areas for a month or so. Motmots have a wide range of calls, from soft, rhythmical hoots to squawk-like and cooing noises, which are sounded singly or in a series. Voices can carry for long distances. Males and females sing together as a mating ritual, which also helps to strengthen the bond during the non-breeding season and to maintain the security of their territory.

Mating pairs build nests usually by themselves, but sometimes in the company of other nests, sometimes with more than forty pairs of breeding birds. Nests are usually in burrows in earthen banks, but are sometimes in crevices in rocks. Motmot male-female pairs dig out underground chambers, taking turns at loosening soil and kicking dirt out of the opening. The chamber may be from 5 to 16 feet (1.5 to 5 meters) long in the larger species. Eggs are laid on bare soil, but may also be laid on regurgitated insect parts. Rounded, shiny, and white eggs are usually laid three to five per clutch. Only one clutch per year is normal, unless the clutch is lost to predators or the weather. In those cases, a second clutch is laid after ten to twenty-one days. Eggs are incubated by both sexes during long shifts of up to twenty-four hours at a time. The incubation period is between seventeen and twenty-two days, depending on the species. Chicks hatch blind, featherless, and dependent on their parents. Both sexes care for the brood, feeding them butterflies, moths, other insects, partially digested food, and protein-rich fruits. Young leave the nest from twenty-four to thirty-two days after hatching.


People use motmot tail feathers and wings for ornamentation.


One species is Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, dying out: the keel-billed motmot. Habitat destruction is a concern for all species as the destruction of forests and woodlands continues unabated.


Physical characteristics: Blue-crowned motmots have a large head with down curved, short, broad beaks, which are serrated along the upper edge. They have bluish black crowns that are bordered with violet and turquoise, and have a black mask with turquoise above and below. The back of the neck is rufous (reddish brown), and its upper body parts are green to olive brown. They have olive green to dull cinnamon under body parts, with one or more spots on the chest.

The plumage of the blue-crowned motmot is composed of shades of blue and green. The center tail feathers are greenish blue, and have bare spines at the tip. Their legs are particularly short. The feet have a middle toe that is almost completely fused to the inner toe, but not to the rear toe. Blue-crowned motmots are 15 to 16 inches (38 to 41 centimeters) in length (including the tail) and weigh between 2.7 and 6.2 ounces (77 and 175 grams). The bill is about 1.6 inches (4.1 centimeters) in length.

Geographic range: Blue-crowned motmots have the widest distribution of any motmots. They are found from northeastern Mexico to northern Argentina.

Habitat: Blue-crowned motmots occupy a variety of habitats, including tropical evergreen and deciduous forests, coastal forests, mountainous forests, and secondary vegetation. They live on the edges of rainforest, secondary growth forests, and plantations. They range to altitudes up to 4,300 feet (1,300 meters), living near water for drinking and bathing.

Diet: Blue-crowned motmots eats insects and other invertebrates, including earthworms, centipedes, and snails. They sometimes eat mice and small reptiles and amphibians, and occasionally some fruits.

They capture prey by sitting quietly on wires, fence posts, or tree branches looking for prey. Sighting possible food, they suddenly fly toward the prospective meal, taking it while it flies or while on the ground. Before swallowing its prey, they hit it repeatedly against the ground or branches to kill or stun it. Insects are often eaten after trains of army ants disturb them. Fruits are often plucked while the birds hover in the air.

Behavior and reproduction: Blue-crowned motmots can sometimes appear to be solitary birds, but in reality they maintain pair bonds. They are not very active and often go undetected. The tail often twitches like the pendulum of a clock when the motmot is disturbed. They make a sound like a double hoot with a resonance similar to that of an owl. They are inactive at night and active during twilight at both dawn and dusk, and most active at the early morning light.

Pairs of blue-crowned motmots, who are believed to mate for life, dig holes during the rainy months from August to October when the soil is soft. The tunnel holes are 5 to 14 feet (1.5 to 4 meters) long and about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in diameter. The nest cavity usually measures 10 inches high (25 centimeters), 10 inches (25 centimeters) in width, and 14 inches (36 centimeters) in length. They are normally dug into the sides of cliffs or in the ground, but will use rock crevices on occasion. They reappear at the holes during the beginning of the breeding season, from March to April.

After a courtship ritual involving the carrying of leaves by the male to the female, mating begins. One adult incubates the eggs from early afternoon to dawn, and then the partner takes its place. Incubation lasts about twenty-one days. Lowland motmots stop covering their young at night when they are a week old. Young resemble adults in coloration, but lack long racket-like tail feathers.

Blue-crowned motmots and people: People have successfully bred blue-crowned motmots in captivity.

Conservation status: Blue-crowned motmots are not threatened. Because of their ability to live in a wide geographical range and in many different forest types, and to tolerate intrusion by humans, blue-crowned motmots are commonly found. However, when forests are destroyed, their survival may become threatened. ∎



Clements, James F. Birds of the World: A Checklist. Vista, CA: Ibis Publishing Company, 2000.

Elphick, Chris, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

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

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

Web sites:

"Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)." Coraciiformes Taxon Advisory Group, TAG website. (accessed on 20 March 2004).