Birds found around the rainforest lodges of Ecuador just love to decorate themselves, especially males who live by the philosophy of the more uncomfortable the adornment, the better. Beauty, for them, knows no pain.
Courtship is a competitive sport for birds, and as the females are so demanding, the males sometimes put on awkward and heavy costumes to catch their fickle eyes.
If the exaggerated embellishments of feathers and crests don’t work, the males become all the more boisterous, trying even harder with elaborate songs and dance routines in which they deploy all their splendid charms and let rip in front of the ladies who peep at them suspiciously through the branches.
It doesn’t seem like a great plan, as with all the commotion and in plain sight of the whole forest they can also attract predators, who could take advantage of the vulnerable state that love brings about in feathered beings – to entrap them.
Even so, evolution has favoured some species that have survived, in spite of their weird, inconvenient, but beautiful adornments, and today they not only present a spectacle to their timid would-be girlfriends, but are also the object of much admiration for many bird-watchers who passionately seek seem out in the forest. Such is the case with the incredibly rare long-wattled umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger), found almost exclusively around the jungle lodges of Ecuador.
The long-wattled umbrellabird, also known as the bull bird, is a species of cotinga that, just like the famous cock of the rock, uses leks to search for a partner. Leks are used by males to make their grand courtship performance where they show off their fine crest feathers, covering their heads up to the beak, like a pompadour coiffed by the most flamboyant of hairdressers. They are also rather like umbrellas, giving them their common name.
During this display of talent, a large and bizarre pendulum extends – from which its scientific name penduliger emerges – that hangs over its chest like a tie, inflating it to show all its splendour with the surrounding short and shiny feathers all erect. The umbrellabirds sing powerful songs in the leks, as if giving a good blow on a horn, a serious and heartfelt cry of love.
The long-wattled umbrellabird only lives in the Chocó, in western Colombia and Ecuador, on the flanks of the Andes, interlinked with the mountain-foot rainforests and lowlands that look onto the Pacific Ocean.
It feeds on lots of different fruits, normally choosing the large fruit of palms from the Arecaceae family, or also on trees and bushes from the Lauraceae and Myrtaceae families.
By eating fruit and then regurgitating it, it is an important species for the forest as it helps to disperse seeds. It also eats insects and little vertebrates like lizards. Outside of the leks it is not usual to spot these birds together; just like the cock of the rock, only the female is in charge of incubating the eggs – normally in nests above palms – and feeding the young. The male is otherwise engaged in decorating his body, singing and inflating his pendulum.
This is an enigmatic Chocó bird, incredibly rare and appreciated by bird lovers. However, in some places, like Mashpi Lodge (one of the best rainforest lodges in Ecuador for birding) there are located populations, so it is easy to see and admire them whether it is after a good walk or from the comfort of the hotel. This species is in a vulnerable state of conservation and its populations are decreasing due to the accelerated destruction of forests generated by the expansion of urban and agricultural limits. But, Mashpi has a great expanse of forest, and all who work there are trying their hardest to conserve and protect it.