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Seeing Curassows, Guans, and Chachalacas when birding Costa Rica

Before coming to Costa Rica for a birding trip, birders usually wonder what their chances are for seeing certain birds that are particularly rare, colorful, or just look extremely cool. Something particularly rare might be a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, male manakins and Bay-headed Tanagers fit nicely into the colorful category, and Ocellated Antbird comes to mind for looking (and being) extremely cool (although the umbrellabird could also fall into this genre). “Extremely unlikely to see” is reserved for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (although it gets its name from the lack of spots, it is remains un-spotted by just about every birder), while things like Great-tailed Grackle and Tropical Kingbird fit snugly into the “ok, I’m tired of seeing those” category.

The Costa Rican members of the Cracidae family can be placed into the category of “Ooh, I really want to see those birds because although they look kind of like turkeys or colorless turacos, I’m not sure what they are”!

In birding terms, the Cracids are the currasows, guans, and chachalacas. Large, long-tailed birds with dewlaps, they tend to become rare because of another trait shared with turkeys- they taste good. For this reason, they are usually most common in protected areas. Fortunately, Costa Rica has lots of protected forests which makes it pretty easy to see all five Cracids if you know where and how to look for them.

Great Curassow: All curassows look great but this one got the title. Found in most areas of the neotropical region, the many species of curassows are all pretty uncommon outside of protected areas and a few (such as the Wattled, Red-billed, and Blue-billed) are highly endangered due to hunting and habitat loss. Unlike turkeys, the curassows have a very low reproductive rate which makes their populations susceptible to even low levels of hunting. The Great Curassow in Costa Rica has certainly declined for the same reasons as endangered curassow species but is still found in a number of wild and protected areas. Although it ranges in lowland and foothill forests from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador, there are very few places where a birder is guaranteed to see one. Although you might chance across one in wilderness areas, possibly the only place where you are almost certain to see a Great Curassow is at the OTS La Selva station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica.

This is because they are well protected and have become so accustomed  to people that males and females stroll the grounds without a care in the world. They might look tame, but these are wild birds that just about pose for photos. This close encounter is a far cry from the brief looks one usually gets after spending hours in some hot, humid rainforest. In Costa Rica, Great Curassows can also be seen in other national parks such as Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, Corcovado, Tortuguero, and others but they are always most reliable at La Selva.

Great Curassows being “great” at La Selva.

Crested Guan: More arboreal than Great Curassows, the Crested Guan is also much easier to see. This brown, turkey like bird with the red dewlap and yapping calls is frequently seen on visits to most protected areas in Costa Rica. They usually aren’t too hard to find because they are so darn noisy. If you hear something calling from the canopy that sounds like a small, yipping dog, you have probably found a Crested Guan.

They are especially numerous in fruiting trees such as those near the administration buildings of La Selva. Unlike the curassow, though, you have a good chance of seeing Crested Guans when birding a wide variety of parks so usually don’t need to visit La Selva to get this bird. I see them on most visits to Braulio Carrillo, Carara, and in almost any areas with enough habitat. Also listen for their wing rattling displays at dawn and dusk.

A Crested Guan hanging out at La Selva.

Black Guan: This is one that you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica because it only occurs here and in western Panama. It’s not that rare in protected areas but is considered to be near threatened by Birdlife International because of threats from hunting and habitat loss in its small range. Although it probably has a fairly small population, since a large area of its montane forest habitat is protected, the Black Guan is doing much better than another regional endemic, the Yellow-billed Cotinga. Although this species often gets missed on birding trips to Costa Rica, I think this is due to its habit of quietly foraging in the vegetation.

Compared to the Crested Guan, the Black Guan hardly vocalizes at all and doesn’t get as alarmed when you walk underneath it. This behavior makes it less noticeable but easy to watch and very photo friendly if you happen to see it. Although I have watched them fly across the highway through Braulio Carrillo National Park, some of the best places for the Black Guan are the cloud forests of the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves, Tapanti National Park (I once saw a dozen in a day on the main road through the park), and forests on Cerro de la Muerte (the Dota area, La Georgina, etc.).

A Black Guan playing peek-a-boo.

Gray-headed Chachalaca: Although it acts and sounds kind of like the one you may have seen in Texas, this is different species. These are fairly common birds found more often outside of protected areas because they prefer second growth.

Because I stuck to birding in forested habitats on my first birding trip to Costa Rica, I missed this species. On my second trip, when I asked a ranger in Braulio Carrillo where to find the Gray-headed Chachalaca, he said, “There are lots in the crappy habitat”. I followed his advice, went to some dense, second growth area along a stream and with a background soundscape of cows mooing from acres of birdless pasture, saw my first Gray-headed Chachalacas!

As is usual with this and other species of Ortalis, I saw a group of a dozen or so that clambered and clucked their way through the low, dense vegetation. When birding in Costa Rica, you might run into this species at any number of humid lowland, second growth sites and is a good bird to watch for around lodges or while driving through this type of habitat. Note that this species is rare at Carara and is mostly found in the more humid forest of the hills above the national park (accessible along the road to Bijagual).

These chachalacas look slanted because I took these pictures from inside a car. We were driving near Arenal, pulled over upon seeing these, and as traffic sped by, managed a few digiscoped images.

Plain Chachalaca: If you saw those chachalacas at feeders in Texas, this is the same species. In Costa Rica, it’s pretty local but regular around Montezuma and other hilly areas with patches of humid forest on the Nicoya Peninsula. In general, it’s easier to see in southern Texas and eastern Mexico than in Costa Rica and has the same habits as the Gray-headed Chachalaca. No pics of this one!

5 replies on “Seeing Curassows, Guans, and Chachalacas when birding Costa Rica”

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for the excellent summary of the big chickens. The chachalaca is the only one I get to see with any regularity, but a day here at the house below the Turrialba volcano is always cheerier, and noisier, when they’re around. I get great close-up looks but unfortunately my photo equipment is rather minimal.

Paul Pickering

That’s cool to see them near the house. The only chickens I get in Santa Barbara are the tasty kind that call from people’s yards.

Plain Chachalacas are also vocal on the road to Playa Naranjo at PN Santa Rosa, as well as on the firebreak at the start of the road.

Crested Guans are common here, and as you said you can also find Great Currasows with regularity, although it sounds like they are much easier at La Selva. I have seen them stroll through the HQ at Santa Rosa, but not frequently.

I think I’ve also seen Black Guan on Rincon de la Vieja.

Hi Patrick,

I really like your shot of the Great Curassow and am wondering if you would consider allowing us to use it in an educational exhibit about Rainforests (if you happen to have a higher res shot-5+MB?).

Happy to tell you more.


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