Turacos and Plantain Eaters: Musophagiformes

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GRAY GO-AWAY-BIRD (Corythaixoides concolor): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


These birds have long tails, short bills and short, round wings. They are weak fliers, but they can walk, run, and leap on tree twigs and branches. The birds move so well on their feet because they are able to bend their outer toes forward and backwards.

Seventeen Musophagidae species are very colorful. Turacos (TOOR-ah-koz) living in forests have blue, green, or purple plumage, with red in their wing feathers. The species living in grasslands are mainly gray and brown. The great blue turaco is the largest bird in this family. From head-to-tail, it measures 28 to 30 inches (70 to 76 centimeters). Other birds in the family range in length from 16 to 21 inches (40 to 53 centimeters).


Turacos and plantain eaters are unique to Africa. They live in sub-Saharan Africa, the part of the continent below the Sahara Desert. The birds are found in the countries of Angola, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Gabon, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, and Burundi.


Members of the Musophagidae family are arboreal, meaning they live in trees. Their habitat ranges from tropical forests thick with trees to grasslands, where there are few trees.


Although "musophaga" means banana and plantain eater, These birds hardly ever eat bananas or the tropical bananas called plantains. Instead, the birds eat the fruits of trees including the parasol and waterberry. The birds eat fruit that grows wild as well as fruit grown by people. Some species also eat flowers, leaves, caterpillars, moths, snails, slugs, termites, and beetles.


Birds live in pairs or in small family groups. Most species are thought to be monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), mating for life. The birds build a flat nest of twigs, and both parents incubate (sit on) eggs. The female usually lays two eggs. Hens in the grassland have a clutch of two or three eggs. They hatch in twenty-two to thirty-one days, depending on the species.

Predators that hunt turacos and plantain eaters include eagles and chimpanzees.


For centuries, people hunted turacos for food and used their feathers for tribal headgear. Some turaco species are popular as cage birds. Hunters don't like the gray go-away-bird because they believe the bird's call warns animals of potential attacks.


Great blue turacos can recognize the difference between the calls of other species, according to biologist Klaus Zuberbühler of St. Andrew's University in Scotland. His research showed that the great blue knew the calls of predators like eagles and chimpanzees. The fruit-eating birds also recognized the calls of other fruit-eaters like monkeys and hornbills.


Three turaco species are threatened, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). One Cameroon species, Bannerman's turaco, is Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction. Environmental groups are working with local people to save the birds threatened by loss of habitat.


Physical characteristics: The great blue turaco is regarded as one of the most beautiful birds in Africa. Its bill is yellow, with a red tip as if it's wearing lipstick. The bird's head is topped by a blue, almost black, crest. Plumage on the head, back, and wings is greenish blue. There is yellow on the chest and other areas including the tail, and red plumage above the feet.

The great blues are the largest members of their family. Males measure from 28 to 30 inches (70 to 76 centimeters) and weigh from
1.9 to 2.1 pounds (0.9 to 1 kilograms). Females weigh from 1.8 to
2.7 pounds (0.8 to 1.2 kilograms).

Geographic range: Great blue turacos live in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Gabon, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi.

Habitat: Turacos spend most of their days in the canopies or tops of trees in Africa's forests.

Diet: Turacos mostly eat fruit, and they pluck it from trees or shrubs. When there is little fruit around, they eat leaves and flowers. Sometimes great blue turacos eat algae (AL-jee), tiny plants that grow in water.

Behavior and reproduction: Great blue turacos are sociable and form parties, groups of up to eighteen birds. A party stakes out a territory of its own. They communicate with two types of calls. One is a low tone that has been compared to a purr. The other is harsher, and sounds like the word "cow" being repeated.

Birds travel in parties and pairs. After mating, they make a nest resembling a platform out of sticks. The hen lays two blue-green eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch in twenty-nine to thirty-one days. In five to six weeks, hatchlings fledge, growing the feathers needed to fly. They will be cared for by their parents for about three months.

Great blue turacos and people: Some people eat turaco meat.

Conservation status: Although the great blue turaco is not threatened, people fear that the destruction of forests, along with trapping and hunting, will cause a drop in the bird population. ∎

GRAY GO-AWAY-BIRD (Corythaixoides concolor): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: Go-away birds are dark gray and with lighter coloring around the eyes. Plumage is darkest on the tail, chin, chest, throat, and on small feathers called coverts. The crest on the bird's head consists of feathers of different lengths. The bird can raise or lower its crest.

The gray go-away bird is 18 to 20 inches (46 to 51 centimeters) in length and weighs from 7.1 to 12 ounces (202 to 340 grams). While not as colorful as turacos, go-away-birds have more wing strength and are better fliers.

Geographic range: Go-away birds live in Angola, the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Habitat: Go-away-birds live in savannas, grassland areas with some trees. The birds generally roost, or stay, in acacia (uh-KAY-shah) trees.

Diet: Go-away-birds eat fruit, leaves, seeds, flowers, and termites. The birds sometimes eat clay, and are the only members of the Musophagidae family to do so. Birds may raid gardens, and their feeding can cause the destruction of crops such as lettuce.

Behavior and reproduction: The go-away-bird is named for its call. People think the call sounds like the words, "Go away." Since the bird calls when people approach, hunters think that the birds are giving a warning to animals.

When gray go-away-birds breed, the female has a clutch of one to four gray eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch in twenty-six to twenty-eight days. Both parents care for the hatchlings. Parents may be assisted by helpers, birds thought to be offspring from an earlier mating.

The go-away-birds often pair up and are part of small family groups. They also form parties of up to twenty birds. They climb and hop in trees and appear to be curious about the world around them. They are less shy around humans than other birds in the Musophagidae family. And just as in human families, not all relatives get along. Go-away birds may chase turacos away from water and food sources like fruit trees. However, the go-away-birds will not object if they are joined by birds such as parrots or pigeons.

Gray go-away-birds and people: Gray go-away-birds annoy hunters because the birds' call sounds an alarm that warns animals that hunters are approaching.

Conservation status: Go-away-birds are not considered at risk of extinction. ∎



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

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

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Stuart, Chris and Tilde. Birds of Africa From Seabirds to Seed Eaters. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999.

Web sites:

BirdLife International. http://www.birdlife.org/news/features/2003/08/kilum.html (accessed on April 25, 2004).

Pickrell, John. "African Birds Understand Monkey Communication, Study Says." NationalGeographic.com. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/18_040313_hornbills.html (accessed on April 25, 2004).