BIRD OF THE WEEK: September 6, 2019 SCIENTIFIC NAME: Phytotoma raimondii
POPULATION: ~1,000
TREND: Decreasing
HABITAT: Coastal dry forest, shrubland, and desert

Peruvian Plantcutter range map, BIrds of North America

Peruvian Plantcutter range map, Birds of North America, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://birdsna.org

The Peruvian Plantcutter is a cotinga, part of a diverse group of Neotropical birds that includes the Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Palkachupa Cotinga, and Andean Cock-of-the-rock.

This bird's genus name Phytotoma derives from the Greek words phuton, plant, and tomos, to cut. As its name suggests, the Peruvian Plantcutter is folivorous (leaf-eating) and has unique adaptations that allow for this unusual diet.

Truly a Rare Bird

The Peruvian Plantcutter has a short, conical bill like a Northern Cardinal's, but with an important addition — serrated edges. These tooth-like ridges allow the plantcutter to chew vegetation into a pulp before swallowing, which is something quite rare in the bird world. Plus, this bird has extra-efficient intestines that process large amounts (for a songbird) of plant material in a short time.

Both of these adaptations allowed the Peruvian Plantcutter to sidestep the need for the complex digestive system seen in other leaf-eating birds, such as the large Hoatzin of Amazonia. Since it doesn't need to divert most of its energy into digesting food, the Peruvian Plantcutter can maintain high activity levels. It is often seen patrolling its territory in pairs or small groups.

The Peruvian Plantcutter uses its strong legs and serrated bill to grasp and tear off leaves, buds, flowers, and small fruits from a variety of trees and other vegetation. It depends upon undisturbed areas with a diversity of tree and shrub species, particularly a type of mesquite called Algarrobo (Prosopis pallida). It gets most of its water from the foliage it eats.

Female-Peruvian-Plantcutter-in-Tumbesian-habitat_Photo-by-Jean-Paul-Perret-and-Dan-Lebbin

Peruvian Plantcutter (female) and habitat by Jean Paul Perret and Dan Lebbin.

Peruvian Specialty

This plantcutter is found exclusively in the coastal valleys of northwestern Peru, in a dry and harsh, though well-vegetated, environment. Like most of its cotinga relatives, the Peruvian Plantcutter is sexually dimorphic: The male's plumage is a mix of gray and cinnamon; the female is light gray with heavy, dark streaking. Both sexes have piercing yellow eyes and short crests, which they raise when excited or agitated.

The Peruvian Plantcutter can also be identified by its peculiar, mechanical-sounding call, which some people compare to a squeaking door or a distant sheep. Click below to play this bird's call:

(Audio of Peruvian Plantcutter call by Andrew Spencer XC42961, accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/42961)

The Peruvian Plantcutter is threatened by widespread habitat loss; only three percent of its remaining habitat, located within the Bosque de Pómac National Sanctuary, is currently under protection.

ABC and Peruvian partner ECOAN are working with another Peruvian nonprofit organization, the SOS Peruvian Plantcutter Project, to restore habitat for this bird, particularly in the town of Talara, where an unprotected area of dry forest shelters a small Peruvian Plantcutter population.

There, the project has worked with the Peruvian air force to build a tree nursery on its residential base, to grow native plants for habitat restoration. It is also advocating for the town to establish a municipal reserve adjacent to the air force base. Environmental education focusing on this species is ongoing in local schools, and an annual plantcutter festival reaches hundreds of children.


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