With most of its range in Central America and Mexico, the Plain Chachalaca just reaches south Texas at the northern extent of its range, though it also lives on a few Georgia islands where it was introduced. Agile at running and jumping in tree branches, Plain Chachalacas rarely make long flights.
Plain Chachalacas live in pairs and family groups. Small territories are defended in the vicinity of a nest. Breeding by some birds takes place at age one, but others may not breed until they are older. Little banding has been done, but Plain Chachalacas have been known to live over eight years in the wild.
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Description of the Plain Chachalaca
The Plain Chachalaca has brownish-olive upperparts, tawny underparts, a long, rounded black tail with a white tip, and a grayish head. Red patch of skin on the throat.
Lacks red throat patch.
Seasonal change in appearance
None, except male’s throat skin is only red during the breeding season.
Juveniles resemble adults.
Woodlands and brushy areas.
Berries, buds, leaves, and seeds.
Forages on the ground or in shrubs or trees.
Resident in south Texas, Mexico, and Central America.
Subsistence hunting by humans takes a toll on some parts of the population.
Plain Chachalacas frequently run about on tree limbs like a squirrel.
The call is a loud “cha-cha-lac” from which the bird gets it common name. Sing duets.
- The Plain Chachalaca is unmistakable.
The nest is a platform of sticks and other plant materials placed in a tree.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Plain Chachalaca
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Plain Chachalaca – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ORTALIS VETULA VETULA (Wagler)HABITS
This curious and exceedingly interesting bird, the chachalaca, brings a touch of Central American bird life into extreme southern Texas in the lower valley of the Rio Grande, where so many other Mexican species reach the northern limits of their ranges and where the fauna and flora are more nearly Mexican than North American.
On May 27, 1923, I spent a good long day, from before sunrise until after sunset, in the haunts of the chachalaca, with R. D. Camp, George F. Sinunons, and E. W. Farmer, the last named a chachalaca hunter of many years’ experience, who knows more about this curious bird than any man I have ever met. The locality to which he guided us was the famous Resaca de la Palma, where so many other observers have made the acquaintance of the chachalaca, only a few miles outside of the city of Brownsville, Tex. This and other resacas in the vicinity are the remains of old river beds of the Rio Grande, which from time to time in the past has overflowed its banks or changed its course, cutting these winding channels through the wild, open country, chaparral, or forest. Some of these channels were dry or nearly so, but most of them contained more or less water below their gently sloping grassy borders. Above the banks were dense forests of large trees, huisache, ebony, hackberry, and mesquite, with a thick undergrowth of thorny shrubbery, tangles of vines, and an occasional palmetto or palm tree. In other places almost impenetrable thickets of chaparral lined the banks, with its forbidding tangle of thorny shrubs of various kinds, numerous cactuses and yuccas. These forests and thickets were teeming with bird life. Along the edges of the watercourses the pretty little Texas kingfishers were seen flying over the water or perched on some dead snag. In some small trees overgrown with Usnea moss the dainty little Sennett’s warblers were flitting about, reminding me of our northern parulas. Handsome green jays were sneaking about in the larger trees, surprisingly inconspicuous in spite of their gaudy colors. Brilliant Derby flycatchers proclaimed their noisy presence in loud, clamorous notes from the tree tops. Sennett’s thrashers scolded us in the thickets, and the confiding little Texas sparrows hopped about on the ground near us, scratching among the dead leaves. Many other birds were seen, but the most conspicuous of all were the doves; the woods and the thickets almost constantly resounded with the deep-toned notes of the white-fronted, the tiresome who cook8 for you of the white-winged, and the soft cooing of the mourning dove. Such is the home of the chachalaca with some of its neighbors.
As we entered the chaparral before sunrise we heard the warning cry of the chachalaca on all sides; the woods fairly resounded with its cries, some of which sounded like a watchman’s rattle, more wooden than metallic in quality; the birds were very shy and seldom seen; occasionally we saw one, perched on some small tree top and giving its challenge or battle cry; but as soon as it realized that it was observed, it would sail down into the thicket and keep still.
Much of the following information is taken from some very full notes obtained from Mr. Farmer. He promised to send me some notes, but unfortunately he has now gone to the “happy hunting grounds.” My friend Frederic H. Kennard was more successful and has very kindly placed these notes at my disposal. According to Mr. Farmer’s personal knowledge, the chachalaca occurs in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata, Willacy, and Kenedy Counties in Texas; the birds are never permanently located more than a mile from water; if the water dries up all about, they move; otherwise they stick to one place throughout the year.
Courtship: According to Mr. Farmer, courtship begins about March 20 in ordinary seasons, with the ohackalac challenge calls of the male, perched in the tops of the highest trees in the chaparral; other males answer from every direction in competition, each trying to “outholler” the others. The females can make a similar call, but it is on a higher key and less in volume. The concert begins at about sunrise or a little before. The male’s call to the female is like the challenge, but it is less harsh and ends with a soft note. The females may climb up into the tree beneath the male, but in a less conspicuous place, generally keeping under cover and answering the male in their own way chattering, talking, and scolding. After the male has “hollered himself ~ the tree, he comes down to the ground and devotes himself to the females, walking about and strutting with head erect and making a low call hardly to be heard a short distance away. If another male appears he is promptly chased off. In Mr. Farmer’s experience with the birds there have always seemed to be two females to one male in this courtship. The male seems strictly impartial. Mr. Farmer has had much experience in rearing young chachalacas, and says that, so far as he has observed, they always seem to hatch out in the ratio of two females to one male. lie also has, many a time, watched the courtship performance of the male with two females, no other male being tolerated in the vicinity.
He says that the males fight a great deal at this season. They have no spurs, but fight with bills, feet, and wings, jumping over one another and pecking at one another’s backs rather than at the heads, their wing strokes, however, being directed at the head. At this season of the year the males frequently appear with most of the feathers pecked off their backs.
Mr. Kennard writes to me as follows:
It is a matter of common report on both sides of the Rio Grande that the chachalacas are used for crossing with game chickens for fighting purposes, the resulting cross being much quicker on its feet than the ordinary game fowl. These reports have, however, never been actually verified by either Mr. Camp or Mr. Farmer and are to be doubted.
A letter from Mr. Camp confirming this states:
I do not agree with any of the statements concerning the crossing of the chachalaca with the domestic fowl. I have traveled hundreds of miles and investigated dozens of cases both on this and the other side of the Rio Grande, endeavoring to verify reported hybrids, and at no time have I found a specimen that I would acknowledge was a cross. Last year I investigated quite extensively among the natives in the district 125 mIles from here, where the chachalacos are very abundant and tame for wild birds. Most all Mexican colonies in the district had semidomesticated chachalacas running with their barnyard fowl, but none of the natives would acknowledge that he had ever seen a hybrid.
Nesting: The only two nests of the chachalaca that I ever saw were found near the Resaca de la Palma referred to. On May 27, 1923, they both held sets of three eggs each, heavily incubated. Mr. Simmons found the first one; he had been standing under the tree for some time, when he heard the bird fly off from the thick foliage over his head and found the nest 8½ feet above the ground. I found the other by seeing the bird fly off, and I had to climb up into the very tops of several slender trees to reach the nest, which was about 18 feet up and well concealed in the leafy tops. Both nests were very small, frail structures, made of sticks and leaves and lined with a few green leaves; they were barely large enough to hold the eggs. According to Mr. Farmer, nest building is started soon after courtship has begun. He has seen two birds, probably the male and one female, at work on the nest, while the other female was sitting about near by, perhaps helping or perhaps only watching. The nest is a scraggly but strongly built structure of short, stout twigs, so well interlaced as to stand a lot of handling; a particularly well preserved previous year’s nest measured about 24 inches across and 10 inches deep. The nest is usually built in an ebony tree, but sometimes in a mesquite or other tree, and usually between 5 and 15 feet above the ground, occasionally as high as 25 feet or as low as 2 feet but never in a hollow tree. He says that he has seen at least 1,000 nests, and that the nest is usually near the edge of the chaparral and near a resaca, never more than 200 yards from water and always near a supply of the berries on which the birds feed their young. The nest is generally built out on a limb, but sometimes in a crotch or where the limb of a tree is interlaced with vines.
There are two sets of eggs in Col. John E. Thayer’s collection, said to have been taken from nests on the ground; one was “in a cane brake, composed of grass, weeds, and other litter,” and the other was “on the ground among heavy grass.” These were taken for Thomas H. Jackson, probably by Frank B. Armstrong or his Mexican collectors, who were known to be careless in the make-up of sets and data. Messrs. Farmer and Camp do not mention any ground nests, and George B. Sennett (1878) says:
The nest of this species Is never found on the ground, but in trees and bushes varying in height from four to ten feet. The structure varies In composition end size according to its location. If It Is In a large fork closo to the body of the tree, a few sticks, grasses, and leaves are sufficient, and the structure will not equal In size or strength that of a Mockingbird. This small size Is by far the most frequent, but I have a nest built upon a fork of two small branches, composed entirely of Spanish moss. It is bulky and flat, being a foot In diameter and four Inches deep, with a depression four inches wide and two deep.
Major Bendire (1892) quotes J. A. Singley as saying:
All the nests I found were In mesquite stubs, where the limbs had been cut off to make brush fences. These limbs are never cut close to the tree and, being close together, form a cavity; leaves and twigs will fall In this and accumulate, and the bird occupies It as a nesting site. I did not find a nest that I could say was built by the bird. When the nest Is approached the bird quietly files off, rarely remaining In sight, and soon calls up Its mate.
Eggs: Mr. Farmer says that in his experience the eggs have been invariably three in number, and most of the other observers say three or rarely two. The larger sets in Mr. Jackson’s collection probably came from Armstrong and may be made-up sets, though perhaps sets of four occasionally occur. The eggs of the chachalaca are ovate, short ovate, or elongate ovate. The shell is thick, tough, and roughly granulated. The color is pale creamy white or dull white. The measurements of 56 eggs average 58.4 by 40.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 65.5 by 47, 53.3 by 40.6, and 58.2 by 37.8 millimeters.
Young: Mr. Farmer has hatched a number of eggs under hens and found that 22 days was the longest period of incubation. He says that the “sitting bird often leaves the nest to go off and feed,” but he doubts whether the male helps in incubation. “The female sits fairly close if one does not make too much fuss in approaching and does it quietly and indirectly, pretending to look for something else. ïWhen she flies she ‘eases’ off the nest quietly and disappears into the brush, going off and hiding somewhere where you can not see her, but where she can see you, whence she ‘quarrels and scolds’ until you leave the vicinity. Often other birds will join in the rumpus. If you have a dog along the birds will be much more noisy, objecting to the dog even more than they do to you.”
The young are precocial, leaving the nest just as soon as the down is dry. The female carries the young down to the ground clinging to her legs, one at a time, according to Mr. Farmer’s observation. This particularly peculiar habit of the young clinging to its mother’s legs has been verified time and again by both Mr. and Mrs. Farmer when lifting the mother hen off the nest to inspect the brood on which she was sitting, and sometimes two at a time clinging to the mother. Once in a drizzling rain Mr. Farmer heard a chachalaca chatter and went to investigate. He found a female with young, and, while he watched, saw her carry, one at a time, aU three young up into an ebony tree and leave them perched in a line on a limb about 15 feet above the ground. When about 2 weeks old they can fly perhaps 100 feet, but when they are a week old they can flutter 8 or 10 feet, and even at this age they are almost impossible to catch, flitting from bush to bush among the underbrush as they do. Mr. Farmer believes that there is only one brood. He has found young birds as late as September or October, and thinks they are the result of the first nest being disturbed. PZwmages: In the downy young chachalaca the center of the crown and the occiput are black, tinged with “russet,” and there is an isolated black spot on the forehead; the sides of the head and neck are “cinnamon-buff,” tinged with ~ on the neck, and finely mottled with black; the chin and throat and lower underparts are white, with a broad band of “cinnamon-buff” across the chest; the upperparts are mottled with sepia and “cinnamon-buff.” Another specimen is similar, but the sides of the crown are “pale mouse gray,” and the back is tinged with “russet~~ in the central black stripe and with “ochraceous-tawny” on the mantle. In both chicks, one of which was known to be only 4 days old, the wings are well started and already reach beyond the tail. The wings and tail in another young bird, about 9 inches long, are so well developed that it could probably fly.
The wings and tail of the juvenal plumage are the first to appear, and they grow so rapidly that the flight stage is reached at an early age. These and the upper parts in general are “Saccardo’s urn her “; the center of the back and rump are barred with “tawny “; the wing coverts are barred with “cinnamon-buff “; the remiges are tipped, and mottled on the outer edge, and the rectrices are tipped with “cinnamon-buff “; the rectrices are decidedly pointed. In the 9-inch specimen referred to above, the head, neck, center of breast, and belly are still downy, evidently the last parts to be feathered; the juvenal plumage coming in on the sides of the breast is “Saccardo’s umber,” while that on the flanks and belly is “cinnamonbuff “; these two colors are sharply defined in the juvenal plumage and not intergraded or blended, as in the adult.
Apparently the juvenal plumage is worn only a very short time, and a complete molt soon produces a practically adult plumage. I could find no traces of juvenal feathers in fully grown fall or winter birds. I have seen evidences of a complete molt in adults in August and September. Mr. Farmer says that they molt only once a year, in September and October. He also says that the naked places showing on each side of the chin are of a grayish flesh color, alike in male and female, except during courtship in spring, when the male’s patches become red.
Food: Mr. Farmer says that the food of the chachalaca consists principally of berries, though they do catch bugs, and sometimes in spring when the buds are tender they “bud” hackberry or other trees. In captivity the tame birds eat bread and crackers or choppedup meat, and they are especially fond of milk, particularly when young, and will relish any kind of fruits, particularly apples and bananas. They are especially fond of raw, chopped-up rabbit.
Behavior: Mr. Kennard has seen chachalacas fly silently and swiftly over the tops of the chaparral, alight heavily in the top of a tree, and hop down from limb to limb without opening the wings. Mr. Farmer once came upon a bunch of 9 or 10 chachalacas following an opossum, teasing it and attacking it, but paying no attention to him even after he had killed some of them.
Sennett (18T8) writes:
Several times, when well concealed, I have noticed a pair spring from a thicket Into a large tree, Jump from limb to limb close to the body until they reached the top, when they would walk out to the end of the branch and begin their song. They roost in trees, and hunters frequently get them at night. Rarely did I see them on the ground. Once, while resting in a mesquite grove which looked very much like a peach-orchard on a well-kept lawn, I saw a Chachalaca trot out from a neighboring thicket In full view. He seemed looking for food on the ground. He discovered me and we eyed each other for a moment, when it turned, ran a short distance, sprang into the lower branches of a tree, and hopping along from tree to tree disappeared Into the thicket about five feet from the ground.
Voice: The remarkable vocal performances of this species are its most interesting and striking habits. They are difficult to describe, but once heard they can never be forgotten. Dr. J. C. Merrill (1878) writes: During the day, unless rainy or cloudy, the birds are rarely seen or heard; but shortly before sunrise and sunset they mount to the topmost branch of a dead tree and make the woods ring with their discordant notes. Contrary to almost every description of their cry I have seen, it consists of three syllables, though occasionally a fourth is added. When one bird begins to cry the nearest bird joins In at the second note, and In this way the fourth syllable is made; hut they keep such good time that it Is often very difficult to satisfy one’s self that this is the fact. I can not say certainly whether the female utters this cry as well as the male, hut there Is a well-marked anatomical distinction In the sexes in regard to the development of the trachea. In the male this passes down outside the pectoral muscles, beneath the skin, to within about one inch of the end of the sternum; It then doubles on itself and passes up, still on the right of the keel, to descend within the thorax in the usual manner. This duplicature is wanting In the female.
Sennett (1879) says:
A more intimate acquaintance with this bird enables me to give a better description of its notes than the attempt in my former memoir. The notes are loud and uttered in very rapid succession, and those of the female follow the male’s so closely, while so well do they harmonize, although In different keys, that I mistook the first note of one for the last note of the other. It really utters but three syllables, thus: Cha-cl&a-lac, Instead of four, clLa-cluz-lao-ca, as given before. It also has a hoarse, grating call or alarm note, uttered in one continuous straIn and without modulation, something like kak-kak-kak.
Dr. T. Gilbert Pearson told me that when he went out to camp one night with Mr. Farmer in the heart of the chachalaca country, the latter had told him that there would probably be within earshot of their camp at least 500 chachalacas, a statement about which he was very skeptical. About sundown the concert began, increasing in volume until the din became almost indescribable. Doctor Pearson was convinced, and finally suggested to Mr. Farmer that he call it 5,000 instead of 500 birds.
Game: The chachalaca has figured largely as a game bird in the Brownsville market. Its flesh is said to make delicious eating. It hardly comes up to a sportsman’s idea of what a game bird should be, though one must have a thorough knowledge of its haunts and habits to be successful in hunting it. It has been quite extensively domesticated on many Mexican ranches, lives contentedly with domestic poultry, and becomes very tame and makes a good pet, although often so familiar as to be troublesome.
Range: Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and northeastern Mexico. The chachalaca occupies a limited range extending north to southern Texas (Rio Grande City, Fort Ringgold, Lomita Ranch, Hidalgo, and Brownsville). East to Texas (Brownsville); eastern Tamaulipas (Matamoras, Jimenez, and Aldama); and northeastern Vera Cruz (Tampico). South to northeastern Vera Cruz (Tampico); and southeastern San Luis Potosi (Valles). West to southeastern San Luis Potosi (Valles); western Tamaulipas (Xicotencatl, Ciudad Victoria, and Rio Pilon); and southern Texas (Rio Grande City).
Egg dates: Texas and Mexico: 73 records, March 21 to August 16; 37 records, April 27 to May 27.