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THE INTELLIGENCE OF BIRDS

THE WATCHFUL AVIANS


Russet-Crowned Motmot

Chiapas, Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason February 2024



Though I grew up with bird books by the kitchen window that looked out onto the woodpile where our homemade bird feeders resided, bird-watching was an activity that held a deep interest to my late older brother Kris when we were children. I can still recall flipping through the pages of a white bird book he received for his birthday when he was around 9 years old. I was interested by their pretty colours and shapes, but never enough to request my own bird book for a birthday present as Kris had done.

 

I was quite happy to bang a few nails into the wooden bird feeders my Dad and Kris would make together each winter, always designed by my brother and usually shaped like a house without walls so the seed would stay dry through the rain and snow. My grandparents purchased me a bird-house kit one year, which my Grandad helped me glue together, but we weren`t successful in attracting any birds to reside there. As the younger sibling, my interest in birds was far more about my brother, hence was a short-lived fascination as a child.

 

While Kris poured through various bird books over the years, identifying species and paying attention to any action in the trees of every campsite we ever settled in, I never took much notice. The first time I photographed birds was in 2007 at Dzibilchaltun archaeological site in Yucatan, when I was 31 years old. I had never seen Turquoise Browed Motmots before and was absolutely stunned by their fantastic tail feathers. I remember thinking about Kris and emailing him photos when I got back home.

 

It feels ironic that the very first bird tour of my life commenced less than one month following Kris`s unexpected and sudden journey to the afterlife. That it included archaeological sites of the Maya Empire was special, given my parents, Kris and I were together in 1996 on a month long exploration of Mayab - a first (but not last) for both Kris and me.

 

As our tour group crossed Chiapas with our binoculars, bird charts and a zoom lens, there were a lot of silent tears that slipped across my cheeks. Ten days spent paying close attention to everything that was singing and fluttering in the trees above and around us made me feel a presence I had never previously experienced. Many conversations and prayers were extended from the heart, in quietude. I am fortunate to have travelled with such wonderful, sensitive and compassionate friends while dealing with such an abrupt and shocking loss. I now find myself reading about birds, and using the Merlin Bird App in my own backyard, which our colleague and expert ornithologist Adrian Ceja Madrigal wisely recommended.

 

What still amazes me most about this keen awareness of birds, was just how many different species Adrian identified at each archaeological site we visited. I have explored exactly 20 ancient Maya cities & sites between Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico and noticed only a pair of Turquoise Browed Motmots at one site. I am now curious as to how many other things I have been missing this whole time, which hovered just as close - such as the tarantulas, scorpions and snakes!

 

This birding adventure will always be a symbolic dedication for you, Kris. You were certainly with me in spirit...



Jennifer & Kris climbing "Big Mound"

Nohuchmul, Coba Quintana-Roo

Photo by Sheila Bjarnason February 1996


Birds aren`t often promoted as being among the most intelligent species on our planet, and yet studies defy the idea of being "bird-brained," as not only are their brains disproportionately large in comparison to their bodies, their intelligence puts them on par with apes.

 

Anyone who remembers the hysterical story of Canuck the Crow who stole a knife from a crime scene in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada might know that crows have tested higher for intelligence than apes and are the smartest known birds.

 

During our Birds of the Maya extravaganza in Chiapas this past February, I found myself researching the different birds we observed, to learn more about them. As we saw over 130 species of birds, I will only include 2 birds for this article, though I am already researching more birds to add to this in future.

 

If you want to learn more about the birds of Mexico, please join us next year for our bird trip from Merida Yucatan through Campeche State to Bacalar, Quintana-Roo.



Montezuma Oropendola

Finca Vallescondido, Chiapas, Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason February 2024


A powerful and stealthy bird, the male Montezuma Oropendola is sometimes nearly twice the weight of the female. These birds reside along the Atlantic slope between Eastern Mexico and Western Panama and the Pacific Slope of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This species is polygynous, with alpha-males generally in control of all mating, unless subordinate males mate with females away from the core group.

 

These intelligent birds choose to nest in tall trees that stand alone away from other trees, to lower the risk of being exposed to ravenous and agile monkeys that often cross the forest by swinging through tree clusters. Over the course of ten days, the females finely weave a hanging nest that is suspended about three feet from the branch, with a cord so thin it is difficult for predators to raid the eggs or steal the babies. Another protective measure is to nest near large wasp nests, as these ward off predators that are wary of being stung or devoured, including parasitic insects.




Russet-Crowned Motmot

Near Cascadas El Chiflon, Chiapas, Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason February 2024


The most defining characteristic of a Motmot are two unique paddle-shaped tailfeathers that are suspended from the long tail, and swing like a pendulum. Our beautiful lunch-guest had shed these defining feathers, but with that red crown, black chest mark, cleopatra eyes, and blue-green feathers, the only thing difficult to identify is the sex of this bird, as Motmots do not possess sexually dimorphic plumage.

 

The Russet Crowned Motmot is the least studied of this species, but the observations are interesting. This bird lives along the western region of Mexico and in select regions of Guatemala. A territorial bird, geneticist Richard E. Tashian (1922-2020) observed Russet-Crowned Motmots with "flocks of birds including golden-fronted woodpeckers, white-throated Magpie-jay, coloured thrush, streak-backed oriole and coppery-tailed trogon in Guatemala" (Animalia). Such observations like these led scientists to conclude the Russet-Crowned Motmot is territorial against its own species, called infraspecific territoriality, which is actually common bird behavior. It`s a testament to the intelligence of birds, that most recognize their own species as a threat to resources and mates, while other birds pose less of a threat due to variances in diet, habitat or nesting habits.

 

My final giggle about this exquisite and stunning beauty, is the fact that these birds go to war clasping a leaf in their beak, as though fencing with a sword...who knew!



Swallow-Tailed Kite

Chinkultic, Chiapas, Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason February 2024


Everyone loves the stoic raptor gliding across the open heavens, sure-winged and focused, bloodthirsty and warlike. When we arrived at the ancient Maya city & Necropolis of Chinkultic in the UNESCO protected Montebello Lakes National Park, Adrian was excited to point out these beautiful Swallow-Tailed Kites. I had never even heard of them before! If you are eager to see a specific bird in Mexico, please write to us and I can discuss it with Adrian. We will have more exciting news soon, as there are always new projects in the making that I cannot yet discuss....



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