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What is a Cotinga?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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A cotinga is a member of a wide and varied family of birds. These tropical creatures are found as far north as Mexico as well as throughout Central and South America, and most are elusive birds that live deep in the tropical rain forests. Species within the family are varied, and contain bright, exotic birds of every color.

The cotinga family falls into the passerine order of birds. As varied as their colors and shapes are, species within the family share some distinctive characteristics. The beaks of these birds are wide and typically hooked at the end, a shape that aids them in eating the fruits that make up a large part of their diet. They all have powerful legs and feet reminiscent of a parrot, and rounded tips at the ends of their wings. In most species, the males are brighter, larger, and have more colorful plumage than the females.

As with other birds, this colorful male plumage is designed to attract a mate. Male members of the cotinga family typically mate with as many females as they can, while the female birds are left to care for the young. When the breeding season begins, males typically gather together to display their courtship behaviors and allow females to choose them from the rest of the flock. This group behavior, called a lek display, is generally seen whether the birds nest high up in the canopies of the forests or on the forest floor.

Occasionally, communal groups are found among species belonging to the cotinga family; this is seen in species such as the purple-throated fruitcrow. This cotinga, which resembles an ordinary crow except for the reddish-purple feathers that the male sports on his neck, lives as part of a larger flock that collectively raises young birds. With its black body feathers, this cotinga is one of the least colorful members of the family.

Others are brightly colored and can blend in against the most brilliant displays of tropical flowers. The male cock-of-the-rock is a bright orange or yellow, while the pompadour cotinga is usually a light reddish-purple. The positioning of feathers is equally showy; the cock-of-the-rock has a large crest of feathers on his head, while the umbrellabird gets its descriptive name from the fan of feathers that fall over its eyes. The capuchinbird is a uniquely built bird that resembles a tropical vulture.

Many members of the cotinga family have been listed as endangered. This is in large part due to the destruction of their habitat. Exact numbers are difficult to determine because the birds live in deeply wooded areas. In addition to their remote habitats, many species are elusive and will move away from human encroachment.

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