In the lowland forests of Central and South America, an attentive observer may hear a croaking "cwwaah" call, then see a slender, colorful bird sitting quietly on a vertical branch or vine, swinging its long, racquet-shaped tail back and forth.
This bird would be a Broad-billed Motmot, an inconspicuous but interesting species. Local people call the species el relojero, the clockmaker, because of the pendulum-like motion of its tail. This behavior may provide a message to potential predators: "I see you, so don't waste your energy chasing me!"
Although the global population of Broad-billed Motmot has not been quantified, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature describes this species as "fairly common but patchily distributed." Populations are suspected to be in a slow but steady decline due to ongoing habitat loss throughout the tropics.
Bright, Broad Beak
Broad-billed Motmot's genus name, Electron, is based on the ancient Greek word for "amber" and can also mean "bright" in scientific circles; both terms refer to the birds' colorful green, blue, and rufous plumage. Its species name, platyrhynchum, means "broad beak," describing this bird's stout, serrated bill.
Related to kingfishers, bee-eaters, and rollers, motmots number more than a dozen species, most of which are notable for their long, oddly shaped tails. Not all Broad-billed Motmots display the feathery racquet, however. Birds in Central America display the racquets, while populations in Amazonia, east of the Andes, do not.
The racquets appear as a result of preening and other types of wear on the birds' long central tail feathers. Weak feather barbs in some sections of feathers result in feather loss, leaving a bare vane with an intact feather tip.
Populations of Broad-billed Motmots — both with and without racquets — can be found in seven reserves within ABC's Bird Reserve Network, a system of more than 70 special places that provide habitat for some of the Americas' rarest bird species.
Sign up for ABC's eNews to learn how you can help protect birds
Broad-billed Motmots feed on mainly on large insects, particularly cicadas, but will also take small vertebrates such as frogs and lizards.
Alexander Skutch, famed naturalist and expert on neotropical birds, observed: "They perch quietly, scrutinizing their surroundings, until they spy some suitable item, which they then snatch from a leaf, a twig, a trunk, or the air by means of a sudden swift dart … they carry the object to some convenient perch, against which, if it be large, they beat it noisily while holding it firmly in their broad, serrated bills."
Broad-billed Motmots sometimes join other bird species such as antbirds, ant-tanagers, and woodcreepers at army ant swarms to snap up escaping insects.
Like the Coppery-chested Jacamar, kingfishers, as well as many other motmot species, the Broad-billed Motmot digs its nest burrow into a vertical earth bank. Both sexes incubate the clutch of three to four eggs, often wearing their tail racquets completely away as they enter and leave the burrow.
Fighting Habitat Loss in Ecuador
ABC and partner Fundación Jocotoco protect habitat at several sites in Ecuador, including at the Buenaventura and Canandé reserves. Here, Broad-billed Motmots find shelter along with other unique birds, such as Rainbow Starfrontlet, Great Green Macaw, and Long-wattled Umbrellabird. (Visit Conservation Birding to make plans to visit these reserves!)
We also work with partners to restore habitat, both within reserves and through cooperative projects involving local landowners. In Nicaragua, for example, landowners received assistance from ABC partner El Jaguar to plant more than 12,000 native trees, restoring habitat for resident bird species such as Broad-billed Motmot and migratory birds including Golden-winged Warbler and Wood Thrush.
Donate to support ABC's conservation mission!