All birds are marvels of natural engineering and adaptation, but some — there's no denying it — fire our imagination more than others. These “cool birds” defy expectations, stretch our thinking, and simply can't be ignored. To that end, we've put together a list of five extraordinary birds, in no particular order, for your enjoyment.
If the Red-capped Manakin's only claim to fame was its appearance, this diminutive fruit-eater would hold its own among many birds. But the brilliant plumage of its head and legs pales in comparison to the bird's astonishing courtship ritual, which involves a set of lightning-fast dance steps, some of which can only be observed with the help of slow-motion video. The best-known move, and one that may ring a bell for those who remember the 1980s, consists of a series of tiny backward hops, sliding males in moonwalk fashion down the "performance" branches they've chosen to display upon.
Although Red-capped Manakins are found from southern Mexico to northern South America, their population is on the decline due to habitat destruction and losses from the pet trade. ABC has helped to protect forests for Red-capped Manakins at the Río Ayampe Reserve in Ecuador, among other places.
When it comes to nest building, Rufous Horneros turn things upside down, literally. These industrious South American birds painstakingly mold thousands of mud dabs into dome-shaped nests on top of branches, fences, phone poles, and other human-made structures. The nests, which can weigh up to ten pounds, usually take several weeks or longer to complete.
So why do these birds, which live in dry areas, build enclosed nests? The answer, it seems, is to keep out predators, which include Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles, small mammals, domestic cats, and snakes. They even take the extra step of building an internal wall near the door, creating a narrow entryway that further slows down potential invaders.
Hornero nests can be found in second-growth scrub forest and pastures from southern Patagonia north to the Amazon, and at ABC-supported protected areas, including the Red-fronted Macaw Reserve in Bolivia.
An apex singer of the bird world, the Musician Wren produces an astonishing melody that has earned comparison to work by Bach and Haydn. Despite its long-time icon status in the Amazon, where the bird is featured in local myths and legends, it was only in 2013 that researchers succeeded in understanding why its enigmatic song sounds so musical to our ears. The answer lies in the Musician Wren's use of consonant intervals, i.e., complementary notes — specifically, its ability to string together perfect octave, fifth, and fourth intervals.
How Musician Wrens perceive their song, of course, remains unknown. Its impression on humans, though, is well known: Many locals consider the birds a good luck token and some hunt them to sell as stuffed charms. As a result, Musician Wren populations are decreasing. ABC worked with conservation partners in Peru to protect habitat for the Musician Wren in Peru's Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the mythical Phoenix, South America's Hoatzin may not rise from ashes, but its food does, digestively speaking at least. The Hoatzin is the only bird in the world to eat only leaves, which, compared to the berries and fruit consumed by other birds, require some extra work to digest. Hence the Hoatzin's cow-like foregut — the only one of its kind in the bird world — which begins the digestion process by fermenting the leaves before they are resurrected for final digestion in the Hoatzin's main stomach.
The Hoatzin's bizarre qualities don't stop there. Armed with claws on their wings, juvenile Hoatzins claw their way up into nests when fledging. Although these claws eventually disappear, their presence is a permanent reminder of the Hoatzin's mysterious past, which scientists have been debating for decades. Recent research indicates that Hoatzins are the last survivors of a 64-million-year-old bird family that emerged shortly after dinosaur extinction.
Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) still classifies this bird as a species of Least Concern, Hoatzin numbers are decreasing. ABC has protected habitat for Hoatzin in the Barba Azul Reserve in Bolivia and at the Villa Carmen Biological Station in Peru.
Sporting a mane of adjustable hair-like feathers, male Long-wattled Umbrellabirds can style their coiffures at will, a talent they exercise with gusto during breeding season by forming umbrella-esque crests over their faces and bills. As if that weren't enough to draw attention, they extend their ungainly wattles and splay the feathers that encase them in waves. To cap things off, they make loud, grunting calls and booming sounds that can be heard almost a mile away. Due to the umbrellabird's relatively restricted range, these booms are mostly heard within the Chocó rainforest, which sits on the Pacific slope of the northern Andes in Colombia and Ecuador.
The IUCN categorizes the Long-wattled Umbrellabird as Vulnerable and its population is in decline, principally due to habitat loss. ABC partner Fundación Jocotoco protects more than 6,100 acres of this forest at the Rio Canandé Reserve in northwestern Ecuador, where the umbrellabird and many other threatened birds can be found.