Five Marvelous Birds of the Rainforest

Tropical rainforests are among the most diverse and complex ecosystems on our planet. They are home to thousands of colorful, unique bird species, including toucans and parrots. As many as 250 bird species can be found in a 220-acre patch of rainforest — five to six times the number of species in a North American temperate deciduous forest!

All this diversity is possible thanks to abundant sunlight, fresh water, a stable climate, and year-round food availability. Rainforests are also old and stable ecosystems. What we see there today is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Birds not only thrive in these ecosystems — they play crucial roles in maintaining them. As seed dispersers and pollinators, fruit-eating birds ensure the continued reproduction of the plants they depend on for food. Meanwhile, insectivorous birds are also important, keeping invertebrate populations in check.

Now, let's meet some of the marvelous birds that live in the rich tapestry of interdependence, time, and climate that we call tropical rainforest.

Resplendent Quetzal by Dudarev Mikhail

Resplendent Quetzal

The Resplendent Quetzal is a member of the trogon family, a group of colorful, fruit-eating birds. Its favorite food source is wild plants in the avocado family that produce smaller fruits than the avocados we buy in the grocery store. The quetzal helps to disperse these plants through the forest by regurgitating the fruits' large pits. This beautiful bird is found from southern Mexico to western Panama in cloud forest, a type of rainforest occurring in mountainous areas.

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations considered the quetzal sacred, a symbol of spring growth, freedom, and wealth. Today, it is the national bird of Guatemala, which named its currency the quetzal.

Resplendent Quetzals are decreasing in numbers, and the species is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Loss of its cloud forest habitat is the biggest threat to this iconic bird.

Curl-crested Araçari by ElaK/Shutterstock

Curl-crested Araçari

The Curl-crested Araçari is part of the Ramphastidae family, better known as toucans. It is one of the 40-plus toucan species found from southern Mexico to South America. In a family known for its bright colors, this araçari might be the most stylish toucan, with its perm-like shiny head feathers. This charming bird is found in western Amazonia in southern Peru, western Brazil, and northern Bolivia, specifically in lowland and foothill rainforest. Like most toucans, the araçari's diet consists primarily of fruit.

Sun Parakeet by aaltair/Shutterstock

Sun Parakeet

The Sun Parakeet is appropriately named: It bears little of the green or red typically associated with parrots, but instead is a brilliant gold with an orange flush on its head and face, shining like the sun. Its range is limited to large areas of intact forest in northern Brazil and Guyana. The species was once known to form large flocks of up to 200 birds, but its population has been dramatically reduced to perhaps fewer than 2,500 remaining in the wild. Although habitat loss is a factor in the Sun Parakeet's decline, its main threat has been capture for the pet bird trade. It is estimated that in the peak years of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of the parakeets were captured in the wild each year and sold as pets around the world. Now, far more Sun Parakeets are in captivity than in their own habitat, where it is now difficult to find these lovely birds.

Harpy Eagle

A large and intimidating predator, the Harpy Eagle truly looks like a bird of myth and fantasy. In fact, it is the inspiration behind Fawkes the Phoenix from the Harry Potter series. The Harpy Eagle can measure up to three-and-a-half feet long, with a wingspan of about seven feet. This powerful raptor preys on medium-sized mammals such as monkeys and sloths, but has also been known to capture parrots (including macaws) and curassows, birds that grow up to the size of hen turkeys. Harpy Eagles were once found from southern Mexico through Central and South America, but, sadly, they are in decline. Today, it is estimated that there are fewer than 50,000 individuals.

Screaming Piha

The Screaming Piha may be a plain-looking bird, but give it a listen. What starts as a gentle whistle turns into a full-on alarm that can be heard 1,300 feet away — more than the length of four football fields! This bird's call is so distinctive, it is used in many soundtracks for films set in rainforest. Male pihas spend much of their day calling, and they do this in a coordinated fashion: Each neighboring piha gets its own turn to shine. A loud noise on a quiet afternoon could trigger a wave of piha calls, one after the other, that goes on for great distances. This loud bird is common throughout Amazonia, specifically in lowland forest. The Screaming Piha's diet consists of insects and fruits, with wild figs a common food source.

Conservation Concerns

More than 150 bird species in tropical rainforests of the Western Hemisphere are Critically Endangered or Endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary factors driving many of these tropical birds toward extinction. Every year, more than 7 million acres of tropical rainforest are lost in the Americas — an area larger than Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.

Deforestation worsens another looming threat — climate change. New research has found that drying, hotter climates are driving population declines even within intact forests. The warming climate affects birds' reproduction and contributes to further habitat loss.

Many tropical birds in the Americas are also threatened by the illegal pet trade. The Sun Parakeet is a good example of how this practice can drastically reduce bird populations in the wild. The extent of illegal trading in South America is still unknown due to the challenges of collecting data, but researchers expect it to increase in the coming years, partly due to growing international demand.

Conservation Solutions

American Bird Conservancy is working to protect critical bird habitat across Central and South America and the Caribbean. Many of the 93 reserves that we have developed in collaboration with local partners serve as homes to threatened birds.

One such reserve is Serra Bonita, which is helping to protect 1,200-plus acres of Atlantic Forest in Brazil. Loss of this type of forest affected Harpy Eagle populations, but in recent years, these mighty raptors returned to the reserve after a years-long absence.

Habitat restoration is another priority for ABC. To date, with our partners, we have planted more than 6 million trees and shrubs in 15 countries. ABC is currently working to plant 70,000 more trees, many of them in tropical rainforests.

The importance of these efforts extends well beyond forest boundaries. Intact rainforests absorb more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year worldwide — a key to mitigating climate change.

These habitats need to be protected and restored for birds and other creatures that inhabit them, and for the planet's well-being. Please consider making a donation or becoming a member to support ABC's important conservation work, which includes protecting and sustainably managing tropical rainforests.

Erica Sánchez Vázquez is ABC's Digital Content Manager.