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Old Woman Chicken

November 28, 2011

The guan family consists of about 40 mostly arboreal, long-tailed, tasty, chicken like birds found throughout the American tropics.  Nestled within this family which contains such bizarre representatives as the sock puppet-like Horned Guan and the turkey-sized Great Curassow, are 12 relatively unremarkable looking brown birds called chachalacas, which look somewhat like pheasants chucked awkwardly into trees and sound like a rush hour traffic jam in New York City.  For many birders, chachalacas would be one of species filling in gaps on a Central American trip list; one of a host of interesting, but ultimately forgotten, birds, that pale in comparison to the multitudes of hummingbirds and tanagers that populate the immediate memories of a neotropic dream trip.  But for birders who spend most of their time on this side  of the old Rio Grande, chachalaca is irrepressibly tropical, particularly when a single solitary member of that neotropic family manages to sneak over to our side of the river to wow us all with their underrated antics and epic voice.  And for that reason, even though I’ve seen a small handful of chachalacas in a couple Central American nations, the Plain Chachalaca, Ortalis vetula, despite its pedestrian name, beats them all by a landslide.

Fortunately for those birders who drool over the names of south Texas specialties, most of the target birds for any first time visitor are really easy to see, and the Plain Chachalaca is no exception.  First, they congregate at feeders to squabble over peanut butter, bananas, and oranges with the best of them.  Second, they travel in gangs consisting of a dozen or more two foot long birds constantly chucking and churring at each other in the low branches as they seem to place bets on who is going to be the first to plant foot on the bare soil like a common chicken.

And third, that voice.  That ringing, echoing chorus that gets every chachalaca in the vicinity roaring along in a full-throated dissonance, a postmodern chorale every bit as pleasing to the ear as anything by a classically trained art musician.

It’s that voice, particularly that of the wide-ranging Plain Chachalaca, that informs the familial common name.  The males and females sing their own parts, the former a deep resonant ch-CHA-la-KA, with the latter sliding in before that even finishes with her own higher and squeakier rr-ra-ka-KA, and alternating back and forth for several seconds until one, usually the female in my experience, cuts out. Nearly every chachalaca species has it’s own variation on the theme, but none so perfectly onomatopoetic as this one.

The moniker “plain” is far more generic, particularly when dealing with a genus that looks pretty much the same down the line, with varying amounts of rufous, gray, and white that informs their names.  Sure, you can find Rufous-bellied, -vented, and -headed Chachalacas, and Gray-headed and White-bellied lurk elsewhere in Central America.  One in Brazil even has a Buff-brow, but all are plainish, even if only the northernmost is truly Plain.

While the common name is ironic in its contradiction, the scientific name seems practically insulting.  The chachalaca genus is Ortalis, from the Greek <ortalis>, or, chicken.  But this is no mere chicken!

Chickens, like their wild ancestors, spend most of their days on the ground pecking and scratching in the leaf litter for tasry morsels.  Not so the Chachalaca!  Sure, at feeding stations the Plain Chachalaca will slum it like a common chicken, but they are truly at home in the low spreading limbs of Mesquite and Acacia that characterize this special part of the continent.  They run along the limbs like the bastard offspring of pheasant and squirrel, slipping along the arboreal trails that only they and their brethren know well.  Saddling the chachalaca family with the painful “chicken” moniker shows only the lack of vision emplyed by those European collectors surveying the continent for the first time.  This is a chicken like a hovercraft is a boat, sure it fits the bill but you’re missing the entire purpose.

The specific epithet is a little more colorful, however.  In a genus in which the specific name is often a direct translation of the common name (Rufous-vented is ruficauda, of course, and White-bellied leucogastra), Plain Chachalaca has vetula, which is the feminine form of the Latin <vetus>; old, ancient.  It’s essentially translated as “old woman”, a name that whose origin I can’t find.  it may have to do with the shrieking call of the species, through that would be pretty blatantly misogynistic, not that 19th century naturalists were known for their overt feminism (Oldsquaw, anyone?).

Amazingly, chachalacas historically ranged all the way into the upper Great Plains.  What little fossil records exist for guans suggest that the family, specifically chachalaca-like guans, ranged all the way north to South Dakota in the not to distant geological past (which, of course, is still a couple million years ago).  But now?  They’re stuck along that narrow green strip of land along the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where they amaze every single visitor with their antics and that epic voice.

  1. November 28, 2011 8:19 am

    Wonderful little homage to the chachalaca. Can’t believe I never went in search of one, when I lived in North Texas. Some day soon …

  2. November 28, 2011 1:22 pm

    Great post Nate!

    What is it with scientific names being so sacred anyway? It seems that anytime there are lumps or splits that they go back to the first scientific name given the species. The scientific name may just be completely wrong or archaic. I get the whole uniform international communication reasoning behind the scientific names, but I think they should be open for change.

  3. December 30, 2011 10:41 am

    Hi Nate!

    Very informative post! I admire your wit and humour when talking about the chachalacas. Although I really could not imagine how they would sound like. Your blog has the promise of getting bigger with these types of posts especially to all those birders. Would you consider upgrading by using wordpress hosting? Check out these sites that would help you here:

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