Todies: Todidae

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TODIES: Todidae



Todies are tiny, delicate, rather chunky kingfisher-like birds. They have a broad head; a long, narrow, and somewhat flattened bill that is colored red or orange-red below and black above; sky-blue to gray cheeks; bright scarlet-red throat patch; short, slightly rounded tail; and shining green wings. All species have brilliant emerald-green feathers on their upper bodies, with various colors on the breast, sides, and stomach depending on the species, some pale (whitish, cream, or grayish) and others having mixtures of pink, yellow, green, and blue. Individual species are identified most often by the different colors of their sides, stomach, and cheeks.

The shape of the bill is designed for efficient eating. It easily snaps up insects from the undersides of leaves in short, sweeping movements. Most species have short, rounded wings and loosely fluffed plumage (feathers). The short wings are efficient for their short flights. Other species fly longer distances, and have longer wings. Males and females are similar in physical characteristics. Adult todies show no changes in feather color between the seasons. The five species are: Cuban tody, narrow-billed tody, Puerto Rican tody, Jamaican tody, and broad-billed tody.

Todies somewhat resemble miniature kingfishers and often are mistaken for hummingbirds. They are 4 to 4.6 inches (10.1 to 11.7 centimeters) long, and weigh between 0.19 and 0.27 ounces (5.4 and 7.7 grams).


Todies range through the larger islands of the Caribbean, including the Greater Antilles in the West Indies. Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico each have one species, while Hispaniola holds two species.


Todies inhabit primary (original) and secondary (vegetation has regrown after the original forest is cut down) tropical forests and woodlands, including dry lowlands, lush mountain rainforests, pine groves, streamside vegetation, pasture borders, limestone regions, cactus deserts, and shaded coffee plantations. Within these environments, their population is limited by the amount of vegetation, number of insects, and other requirements, especially good nesting locations. They occupy environments ranging from 160 feet (50 meters) below sea level to elevations above 9,800 feet (3,000 meters). They seek out brushy lands and forests with plenty of foliage (leaves, flowers, and branches), epiphytes (EPP-uh-fytes; plants that grow while attached to another plant, usually high in the air), and vines. They often are found along the edges of streams or rivers.


Todies eat large amounts of food with respect to their tiny body size, often eating one insect or more during every minute of the daytime hours. They eat a wide variety of insect families, but chiefly consume ants, bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, damselfies, flies, grasshoppers, mantids, and mayflies. They also eat lizards, seeds, and spiders.


Todies generally appear as vivid green birds that fly rapidly with bounce-like actions through the woods in pairs while chirping to each other. They often accompany such behaviors with loud nasal beeps, grating and monotonous "neet" or "prrrrreeet," or harsh chatter. Their calls help to distinguish the various species. They are generally territorial (protecting an area from other birds), but will temporarily join other species that are feeding within their territories. They spend much of the day, either alone or in pairs, sitting motionless on perches of small twigs. They normally perch with their bills in an uplifted position.

Todies catch their prey by a graceful stunt-plane-like technique in which the head is directed upward while the bird scans the undersides of leaves and twigs. While jerking its head and moving its eyes, it darts upward at a shallow angle and flies at a short curved path in order to grab an insect and continue the end of its flight at another perch. They may also hover in midair in order to catch prey.

Todies are homeotherms; that is, they have body temperatures like humans in which metabolic rates and temperatures are controlled. At times, todies can become very inactive to conserve energy. Such dormant periods occur when they cannot eat because of the darkness at night and during long periods of heavy rain. Females also become dormant in order to save their energy while breeding. Todies do not migrate.

Todies often show courtship displays of hovering and zooming that involve great amounts of whirling and crackling of the wings. The flapping of the wings (sometimes called wing-rattling) is similar to the noise heard when pulling a finger quickly across a comb. Males and females pursue each other at very fast speeds, weaving around foliage. Once paired, both will exchange freshly caught insects.

When ready to start a family, they dig tube-shaped, angled tunnels in vertical soil embankments from February to May. One tunnel may take eight weeks to finish. Bills chisel out the soil, while their feet push the soil away. Tody eggs are much larger than eggs of other similarly sized birds, with eggs weighing about 26 percent of the adult's body weight (with typical egg-to-body weight in birds from 2 to 11 percent). Tody females lay one clutch, or set of eggs, per year, with two to five eggs per clutch. If destroyed, females will produce another clutch.

Eggs are tiny, white, glossy, and roundish. Incubation periods (time spent sitting on eggs) last twenty-one to twenty-two days, while nestling periods (time a young bird spends at the nest after hatching) are between nineteen and twenty days. Each parent spends only two to three daylight hours incubating. Hatching occurs usually in the late afternoon. Nestlings are born naked, with cushioned heels that cover the feet. Young remain in the nest until they can fly.


People degrade the territory of todies when they enter and alter the natural forests they prefer. They are often an attraction for birdwatchers, allowing people to approach them as closely as 6 feet (2 meters).


Todies, generally, are not threatened. However, in 2001, population densities decreased due to habitat destruction. The narrow-billed tody is considered Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.


Physical characteristics: Cuban todies are brilliantly colored, primarily green in body color, with a big head, no neck, and the smallest bill of all todies. They have rosy pink sides, whitish stomach, yellow undertail coverts (feathers between flight feathers of the wing and tail), red throat, and sky-blue cheek patch. The flattened bills have notched edges and a yellow base. Their eyebrows are an almost brilliant yellow-green. They have a wingspan of about 4.3 inches (10.8 centimeters) in length, with a weight of between 0.21 and 0.23 ounces (6.0 and 6.5 grams).

Geographic range: Cuban todies range throughout Cuba, including the Isle of Pines (Isle of Youth) and four large cays (KEYS or KAYS; low islands or reefs) off of Cuba's north coast.

Habitat: Cuban todies are found in dry lowlands, dry mountainous scrublands, tropical deciduous forests, tropical lowland evergreen forests, mountainous evergreen forests, pine forests, and along seashores (near coastal vegetation). Specifically, they are found in shady areas, usually along streams and rivers.

Diet: Cuban todies eat mostly small adult and larval insects, but have been known to eat caterpillars, spiders, and small lizards. They sometimes (but rarely) eat small fruits.

Behavior and reproduction: Cuban todies are rather inactive birds that search for prey from a perch. They forage, search for food, in arid scrub at an average height above the ground of 9 feet (2.7 meters). They often look for food from twigs and undersides of leaves. They make a characteristic rattling with their wings. When perched, they sometimes repeat a peculiar short "tot-tot-tot-tot" sound. Their most characteristic call is a soft "pprreeeee-pprreeeee."

Cuban todies pair for life, and have striking courtship patterns, including showing their bright pink sides. They breed from April to June, first digging burrows in earthen banks, within rotten logs, and in natural limestone cavities. Tunnels are usually about 1 foot (0.3 meters) in length, with a chamber at the end. The walls of the tunnel and the egg chamber are often lined with a thick glue-like substance mixed with algae (AL-jee), grass, lichens (LIE-kenz), small feathers, and other materials. Though infrequent, they also build at cave entrances. The white eggs produced by the female, usually three to four in number, are the smallest of the todies.

Cuban todies and people: People in poor areas sometimes eat Cuban todies. Otherwise, they are a delight to people who enjoy watching them.

Conservation status: Cuban todies are not threatened by extinction, being common and widely distributed throughout its range. However, Cuba's poverty and unstable economy may affect tody populations, especially with regards to pesticide use, which may harm the todies. ∎



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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, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

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