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The Trogon: Beautiful Nibblers of the Forest

Saturday 13 August 2022

The Trogon – it sounds like a species of alien out of Star Trek or Doctor Who. However, this family of somewhat overlooked birds has its roots very firmly on planet Earth. If asked to list bird families, where would the Trogonidae be on your list? Chances are, way down or not at all. However, these exquisite birds are well worth a look. Here are ten of the thirty nine species.

Considering that they have been around for forty nine million years, it is surprising that the Trogons are such little known species. Perhaps it is time they changed their agent. Where did they get their strange name from? Its roots, like so many other words, are in the Greek language. Trogon is the Greek for ‘nibbling’ and this may well be something of an understatement. These birds literally gnaw holes in trees in the forests in which they live in order to create an environment suitable for nesting. The Sumatran variety, above, is found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, making its home in the tropical moist forest there.

Being part of the same family of birds does not mean that the species within it stick to similar plumage. The variety is amazing. The wonderfully named Elegant Trogon can be found in Arizona down to Costa Rica. When it gets lost it is sighted sometimes in Texas. It loves semi-arid woodlands and, contrary to its name, doesn’t particularly go for nibbling itself, preferring to let woodpeckers do it for them – more often than not it will choose an abandoned woodpecker hole. The lovely orangey-red of the male’s belly makes it a striking addition to the environment which it inhabits. Broad bills and rather spindly legs give away its arboreal predilections. They can fly fast when necessary but are generally not too keen to fly too far.

The Violacious species which occurs in the Amazon Basin (but can also be found on Trinidad) sometimes chooses to lay its eggs in a wasp or termite nest though it will also head for a hole in a tree if it can find one. They lay two or three white eggs and to feed their chicks they will forage insects and small fruit. Like other Trogons they live in forest and – typical of the family as a whole – when they perch they remain motionless.

The Cubans are so proud of their variety of Trogon that they have made it the national bird of the island state. Although they prefer to live away from our species, this species has found that it must live on the periphery of our society and many in Cuba live in forest degraded by our own activities within. This having been said, the species does not apparently seem to be in any immediate danger.

Africa is not without its own Trogon species and perhaps the most beautiful is the Narina. It seems that it was named after the mistress of the French ornithologist, Francois Le Vaillant and both sexes have the same green upper part plumage, with the tail feathers a metallic bluey green. It can be found from Ethiopia to Sierra Leone and is widespread in its enormous range – and is in no danger whatsoever as a species (something which is always good to report). This Trogon is a little more adventurous in its diet than some of the other species – as well as the usual insects it will make a meal of small rodents and reptiles too. Like all other Trogons, they like nesting in tree hollows. Both sexes of Trogons are involved in the rearing of the chicks – something found throughout the family.

The news is not so good in Indonesia where the Scarlet-rumped Trogon is in danger. Although it is found on a number of the Indonesian islands and Thailand it is threatened by – guess who – mankind. We are quickly encroaching on its natural habitat and as our numbers grow the numbers of this amazing looking bird are dwindling. This is a great shame as we do not know everything there is to know about this family of birds by a long way. The positioning of the Trogon species within the Aves class is still a long standing mystery and although a variety of suggestions have been made it is still not clear. Some argue that it is close to the kingfisher though the way that the toes on the foot are arranged – different to any other bird – makes many ornithologists believe that they have no close relatives.

The White-tailed Trogon is found in Ecuador and Columbia. It is one of the larger species in the family and can measure almost a foot in length. Although among the most beautiful birds on the planet, trogons tend to be somewhat reclusive – and not seen very often at all. There is not known about their biology but they are popular with birdwatchers. There is a small ecotourism industry based around watching them.

The Surucua if found in the humid forests of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina and has a gorgeous red belly. They are sedentary and the Surucua – as well as the rest of the species in the family – has never been seen to undertake a long migration. They will however, move to lower altitudes during different seasons of the year. Trogons are extremely difficult to study as they have exceptionally thick feet bones which make tagging all but impossible.

The White-Eyed Trogon is found mostly in Columbia. The wings, short and strong are atypical of the family and make up just over twenty percent of the body weight. Again, like most Trogons, it will not fly very often – or very far. It is thought that most Trogons are reluctant to fly more than a few hundred meters at a time before alighting. Most Trogons will fly quietly however, and the flight of the White-eyed is almost silent.

Part of the Trogonidae family contains six species which are considered the most beautiful – if not the most unusual – in the family. These are the Quetzals. The Resplendent Quetzal, seen in the pictures here, is quite remarkable. It is found from Southern Mexico to Panama and has played a large part in the mythologies of the indigenous people of the areas it inhabits. It grows up to fourteen inches long but the male has an amazing twenty five inch tail streamer. Their iridescent upper bodies work up to a crest which is helmet like in appearance and gives the Quetzal a somewhat thuggish face.

The bird was considered divine and associated with the god Quetzalcoatl. Considered to be a symbol of goodness and light the Mesoamerican rulers wore headdresses made from the feathers. As it was a crime to kill a Quetzal, the birds were caught, the tail feathers plucked and then they were freed. It was thought for a long time that the Quetzal could not be kept in zoos as it usually kills itself soon after being captured. However, at least one zoo in Mexico has managed to breed them.

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