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The Brightest Examples of Tropical Birds (In My Journeys)

Blue Gold Macaw

Tropical birds often seem otherworldy – if you haven’t seen them in person, it’s hard to believe there are such beautiful creatures living among us!

In North America, we have the vibrant cardinals, laid-back foragers, and some shiny specimen, but they are not as bright as tropical birds.

So, this brings us to the question – which are the brightest and most exotic tropical birds? Where do they live?

 

What Makes A Bird A Tropical Bird?

Tropical birds are any bird species that lives anywhere between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; two lines of latitude that mark the northern and southern boundaries where the sun shines directly overhead.

In other words, the “tropical region” means a lot of hot weather with no real winter. It also means lots of birds! Thanks to that lack of winter and exuberant tropical habitats, the highest number of bird species live in the tropical zone.

Literally thousands of bird species live in the area between Mexico, India, and southern China, and northern Australia, Brazil, and South Africa. Not all the birds that live there have bright colors but several are some of the most stunning birds on the planet!

They take the form of exotic looking toucans, macaws, glittering hummingbirds, jewel-like tanagers, and more. All are a feast for the eyes and a treat for the camera.

 

The Brightest Tropical Birds

There are dozens and dozens of stunning, bright tropical birds. It’s hard to pick just 20, but we settled on the following for our list of exotic and bright tropical birds.

 

Resplendent Quetzal

Resplendent Quetzal

Scientific name: Pharomachrus mocinno

Location: Mountains from southern Mexico to western Panama.
Habitat: Cloud forest

The Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most spectacular birds in the world. Males of this trogon species are shimmering emerald green with gold and blue highlights, and have a velvet red belly. They also have white on their tail and long, flowing, iridescent tail coverts.

Females are much duller than males and lack the long tail coverts. This species gives cackling and whistled calls from misty cloud forests, and mostly feeds on fruit.

When foraging, Resplendent Quetzals briefly hover as they use their beaks to pick small wild avocados and other fruits. During breeding season, they also feed small lizards to their nestlings.

This spectacular bird nests in tree cavities and during courtship, males can fly into the air with their long tail coverts fluttering and flowing behind them!

This special bird has held a sacred spot in Mayan cultures for hundreds of years, and was even believed to be a messenger of one of the deities.

 

Indian Peafowl

Peacock's display

Scientific name: Pavo cristatus

Location: India and some parts of Nepal and Bangladesh.
Habitat: Open and scrubby woodlands.

The Indian Peafowl is a big, familiar, turkey-sized bird. Males are deep, shining sapphire blue and green with a small crest and white on their face. However, their most eye-catching characteristic is their long, spectacular tail.

Male Indian Peafowls raise and spread this tail to show its many “eye spots” and iridescent gold and green colors. Females are much less colorful and are mostly gray-brown with a white belly and some green on their necks.

These fancy birds are mostly native to India but we also see them in gardens, on farms, and some other places. We also hear them! Male Indian Peafowls make loud wailing vocalizations that carry a long way.

Indian Peafowls act a lot like Wild Turkeys and pheasants. They scratch on the ground for seeds, bugs, and small animals, and also eat berries. Although this big bird can fly, they mostly flutter up and into trees to escape predators and roost for the night.

 

Scarlet Macaw

Scarlet Macaws

Scientific name: Aara macao

Location: Southern Mexico, parts of Central America, northern Colombia, and the Amazon rainforest.
Habitat: Lowland tropical forests.

Scarlet Macaws are spectacular birds with surreal plumage. With their bright colors, big size, and loud voices, Scarlet Macaws almost seem larger than life!

These special birds are brilliant red with yellow and blue highlights in their wings and long pointed tails. Both sexes look alike and often occur in pairs. At good feeding sites and some other situations, Scarlet Macaws also form flocks.

Like other parrot species, Scarlet Macaws eat a variety of seeds and fruit. After landing in a tall tree, they quietly clamber around and use their big strong beaks to crack open all sorts of tropical seeds.

Like other members of the parrot family, Scarlet Macaws also nest in tree cavities. In some places, they have also used special nest boxes!

In most of their range, Scarlet Macaws are leery of people. One of the exceptions is in Costa Rica where they have become used to people and often feed in village trees!

 

Toco Toucan

Toco Toucan

Scientific name: Ramphastos toco

Location: The Guyanas, Brazil, Paraguay, and northern Argentina.
Habitat: Savannahs, riparian zones, and open habitats.

This big toucan is a classic tropical bird with black plumage, white rump, white throat, and a deep red undertail. It also has orange around its eyes, and, most of all, a massive orange beak with a black tip.

Toco Toucans also have blue-gray legs, rounded wings, and a fairly long tail. These striking birds forage for fruit and small animals in tall trees. They usually occur in pairs or small groups and can act a lot like jays and other Corvids as they inspect branches and foliage for food.

Like other toucans, this species is also quite vocal and makes loud croaking or grunting calls from a high perch. Although their beak looks cumbersome, it is mostly hollow and not as heavy as one might expect.

Toco Toucans also use that huge bill like a tool. It helps them reach into crevices and holes as well as delicately pluck berries from twigs.

 

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Scientific name: Ramphastos sulfuratus

Location: Eastern Mexico to northern Colombia.
Habitat: Tropical forest habitats.

Keel-billed Toucans are big, tropical birds with one of the fanciest beaks in the avian kingdom. They have glossy black plumage with a red undertail, white rump, and a yellow throat. These big birds also have some green around their eyes, blue-gray legs, and a huge, multi-colored beak.

Their bill is green with some orange and pale blue, and a dark red tip! It fits with one of their other names; the “Rainbow-beaked Toucan”.

Like other members of their family, Keel-billed Toucans behave like crows and jays. They are social and inquisitive birds that usually move around in pairs or small flocks.

They are also omnivores that feed on a wide variety of items including insects, frogs, nestlings, other small animals, and many types of fruit. In some places, Keel-billed Toucans even come to fruit feeders to forge themselves on plantains and papayas!

This species also nests in tree cavities and gives a croaking vocalization from a high perch.

 

Crimson Topaz

Scientific name: Topaza pella

Location: Venezuela, the Guyanas, and northern Brazil.
Habitat: Rainforest, especially near rocky outcroppings and waterways.

The male Crimson Topaz is a stunning, pinkish-red hummingbird with shining lime green and orange highlights on its throat and rump. It also has an orange tail, black on its head, and two long feathers that extend beyond its tail and cross each other!

Although the male is incredibly fancy, the female Crimson Topaz is a much duller, green bird with some orange on her throat and tail.

To attract a mate, males make chipping calls from high perches and do display flight over water that show off their colors and white markings near their legs. Like other hummingbirds, females carry out all the nesting duties and construct their nest over or near water.

The Crimson Topaz catches small insects in flight, and drinks nectar from flowers high in the canopy or from vines. In some places with rocky outcroppings, they also take nectar from flowers close to the ground.

 

Velvet-Purple Coronet

Velvet-purple Coronet

Scientific name: Boissonneaua jardini

Location: Western Colombia and northwestern Ecuador.
Habitat: Cloud forest.

Velvet-purple Coronets are big, incredibly beautiful hummingbirds with medium-length, straight beaks. They have deep, shining purple plumage with purple-green on their back and rump, and some black on their head and belly.

When these hummingbirds perch, they briefly hold their wings outstretched. Look close and you can see some chestnut coloration on the underside of their wings.

In flight, these big cloud forest beauties also flash white in their tails! Both sexes look pretty similar although males are a bit more colorful than females. They can visit hummingbird feeders but naturally forage for nectar at all levels of their wet, mossy cloud forest habitat.

Like other hummingbirds, Velvet-Purple Coronets also catch small insects in flight.

Thankfully, this brilliant tropical species is locally common. Visit the right places and you can watch Velvet-Purple Coronets showcase their deep glowing colors. They also make fantastic subjects for the camera, especially when seen in their misty surroundings.

 

African Emerald Cuckoo

Scientific name: Chrysococcyx cupreus

Location: Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Habitat: Woodlands and second growth.

African Emerald Cuckoos are a small cuckoo species with brilliant plumage. They are just a bit smaller than a Baltimore Oriole and have white spots on the underside of their tails. However, when you see this striking bird, that’s not usually the first thing you notice.

Males have fantastic, shining green plumage on their upperparts, wings, head, and chest. Their colors can look so metallic, the bird almost looks like it was sculpted! The males also have yellow bellies and longish wings.

Females are much duller with barring on their heads and underparts, and green on their back, wings, and tail.

African Emerald Cuckoos usually stick to dense foliage where they forage for caterpillars, various insects, snails, and other small creatures. Since they blend in very well with green foliage, we usually hear this bird before we see it.

Luckily, they often make loud vocalizations that consist of three sharp whistles.

 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Scientific name: Cacatua galerita

Location: New Guinea and northern and eastern Australia.
Habitat: Forest, open woodlands, and farmlands.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are big, bold birds that are hard to miss! These Australian parrots have fluffy white plumage with some yellow on the side of their face, and a big, long yellow crest that they often raise and show off.

In flight, we can see some pale yellow on the underside of their long, broad wings. Sulphur-crested Cockatoos also have stubby black beaks, a rather short tail, and waddle around on stout black legs.

Like other parrot species, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are usually seen in pairs and also flock with each other. In many parts of Australia, these fancy birds are considered to be pests because large flocks can dig up seeds and damage other crops.

They nest in tree cavities, lay two to three eggs, and do very well in areas with woods and croplands. In some parts of Australia, birders can watch hundreds of noisy Sulphur-crested Cockatoos fly back and forth from roosting areas!

 

Blue and Gold Macaw

Blue and Gold Macaws

Scientific name: Ara ararauna

Location: Eastern Panama, northern Colombia, the Amazon rainforest and central-eastern Brazil.
Habitat: Lowland rainforest, riparian forest, and palm forest in savannahs.

Blue and Gold Macaws are huge, spectacular parrots commonly seen in zoos and bird exhibits. However, their true habitats are much more tropical in nature. These beautiful birds are tied to palm swamps or stands of palms in or near tropical forest.

In those wild places, Blue and gold Macaws shriek and call as they clamber high above the ground and feed on palm nuts. They also fly to and from nesting and roosting sights, usually in pairs or small groups.

These striking birds have beautiful blue upperparts with a bit of green on their heads, and deep golden-yellow underparts. They also have black beaks and some small black feathers on their white faces.

Like other members of their family, Blue and Gold Macaws nest in tree cavities (usually in a palm), and lay two eggs. Pairs from long term bonds and when you see three macaws flying together, that’s typically a pair with one of their offspring.

 

White-tailed Tropicbird

White-tailed Tropicbird

Scientific name: Phaethon lepturus

Location: Tropical and subtropical oceans.
Habitat: Warm oceanic waters and islands.

White-tailed Tropicbirds are striking, white seabirds with a long, slender white tail. During their graceful flight, those extended tail feathers flutter up and down!

Adults also have a deep orange beak, black around their eyes, and two black marks on the upper part of their wings, near their back. They also have black primaries.

Young birds have some black mottling on their back, and also have black primaries, but they don’t have an elongated tail.

These elegant seabirds forage for small fish and squid that they catch on the surface of the ocean. They may also follow boats to catch flying fish. White-tailed Tropicbirds probably also catch fish that feeding groups of tuna and other predatory fish drive to the surface.

We usually see them on pelagic boat trips, although birders also see White-tailed Tropicbirds from shore. Some of the better spots are in Hawaii, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.

 

King Bird-of-Paradise

Scientific name: Cicinnurus regius

Location: Papua New Guinea.
Habitat: Lowland rainforest.

The King Bird-of-Paradise is a true stunner in one of the most stunning bird families. This small, chunky bird is only around the same size as a big sparrow but makes up for it with breathtaking plumage.

Males are iridescent, shining red with some golden colors above their beak, and have snow white underparts with iridescent green below their chest and on their sides. They also have a yellowish beak, bluish legs, and two slender feather shafts that extend beyond their tail and end in rounded green structures!

In courtship, male King Birds-of-Paradise does a dance where it stands up on a branch, flares its green side feathers, and moves those exquisite tail feathers back and forth, above its head!

Females don’t have any of those tropical colors. They are dull gray-brown birds with fine barring on pale brown underparts.

This species feeds on fruits and small arthropods in all levels of the forest.

 

Flame Bowerbird

Scientific name: Sericulus ardens

Location: Western New Guinea and southern Papua.
Habitat: Rainforest and tropical woodlands.

The Flame Bowerbird is a breathtaking tropical bird that adds bright color to its dim tropical understory habitat. Males are fairly rotund, Robin-sized birds with rather short tails and bright golden plumage.

They are flaming red-orange on their head, chest, and back, have yellow eyes, and black on their wings and tail. Females aren’t quite as colorful. They don’t have any of the male’s flaming colors and are basically brown above and yellow below.

Not a lot is known about this beautiful tropical species but it probably has a similar fruit and insect diet like other bowerbird species. It probably also flocks with other frugivorous birds to feed on berries and other fruits.

Like other bowerbird species, the male Flame Bowerbird also constructs a fancy structure on the ground to attract females. It is made of sticks and can also include snail shells, fruits, glossy leaves, and bits of flowers.

 

Red-billed Tropicbird

Scientific name: Phaethon aethereus

Location: Oceanic waters off Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Habitat: Warm oceanic waters and islands.

Red-billed Tropicbirds are beautiful, white seabirds with an elongated white tail. In flight, it flutters up and down!

Adults have a red beak, a thick black line that goes back from their eyes, and fine black barring on their back. They also have black on their primaries and primary coverts.

Young birds look a lot like adult birds but lack their elongated tail feathers, and have yellow beaks.

These pretty seabirds forage for squid and small fish, including flying fish caught near boats. They also dive for fish scared to the surface by tuna and other big predators.

We usually see Red-billed Tropicbirds in pelagic waters, only rarely from shore. They typically show up all of a sudden, flying high over the boat. However, we sometimes also see one floating on the surface of the water.

Although Red-billed Tropicbirds occur in a number of places, many birders see them on boat trips in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

 

Sun Conure

Sun Conures

Scientific name: Aratinga solstitialis

Location: Western Guyana and northern Brazil.
Habitat: Open savannah woodlands.

Sun Conures are small, beautiful parakeets with bright yellow plumage highlighted with peach and orange on their heads and underparts. They also have dark green in their wings and tails, dark eyes that contrast with the bright colors on their head, and a black beak.

These absolutely beautiful parakeets aren’t the easiest birds to see. They only live in remote areas that can be hard to reach, and have a small and declining population. Sadly, their tropical beauty has been the cause of their decline.

Sun Conures have a lot of value in the cagebird trade and thousands have been taken out of the wild. This illegal activity has caused them to become endangered and, without effective conservation efforts, they could quickly disappear from the wild.

Like other parakeets, Sun Conures are social and often forage together. They feed on seeds and fruits on trees in gallery forest and other woodlands.

 

Paradise Tanager

Paradise Tanager

Scientific name: Tangara chilensis

Location: The Amazon rainforest.
Habitat: Lowland rainforest.

The tanager family has dozens of brightly colored members. However, even in a family of stunning tropical beauties, the Paradise Tanager stands out. This fantastic bird is velvet black with a lime green head, purple throat, turquoise blue underparts, and a scarlet rump.

It’s one of those birds that seem too beautiful to be true! Luckily, Paradise Tanagers are fairly common in the canopy of their rainforest home. Small groups often forage with other beautiful tanagers, and they can congregate with other small birds at fruiting trees.

Since Paradise Tanagers prefer the high canopy of the forest, the best way to watch them is from a canopy tower. Several Amazonian lodges have these useful structures. As long as you don’t have a problem with heights, you can see appreciate the colors of these beautiful birds at eye level or even from above!

This species also nests in the canopy and rarely approaches the ground.

 

Turquoise Cotinga

Scientific name: Cotinga ridgwayi

Location: Southern Costa Rica and a small area in western Panama.
Habitat: Lowland foothill rainforest.

The Turquoise Cotinga is one of many cotingas with bright and beautiful plumage. This family of tropical birds are coveted by birders from Mexico to Argentina. Most live in South America but a handful of species range into Central America.

One of those birds is this one, the Turquoise Cotinga. Like its name indicates, this species is a true tropical stunner! Males have shining turquoise plumage with dark purple on their underparts. They also have some black in their wings, on their upperparts, and around their eyes.

This and other cotinga species with similar shining blue colors are so bright, you can see them at great distances. They usually perch on the very top of tall canopy trees, especially in the morning and late afternoon,

During the day, Turquoise Cotingas fly to and forage at fruiting trees. Females don’t have any of the male’s bright colors. They are gray-brown above and buff below with scale-like markings.

 

Hoatzin

Hoatzin

Scientific name: Opisthocomus hoazin

Location: Most of the Amazon basin.
Habitat: Bushes and second growth at the edge of lagoons and oxbow lakes.

Hoatzins are odd, pheasant-like birds with buff, chestnut, and dark brown plumage. They also have orange, wispy crests, red staring eyes with bluish skin on their face, and long, buff-tipped tails.

These weird birds spend their time perching in and clambering around vegetation next to lagoons and other wetlands. They are social and usually occur in flocks that make harsh calls as they forage in the vegetation.

Unlike most birds, Hoatzins are herbivores that graze on leaves! They spend much of their time grazing on the foliage of the bushes where they perch, and are pretty easy to see. To digest their leafy food, Hoatzins have special stomachs to ferment and break down vegetation. That fermenting can give them a sour smell and indeed, one of their local Amazonian names is “Stinkbird”!

Hoatzins are also odd because when they are young, they use claws on the front part of their wings to climb up and into lakeside vegetation.

 

Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher

Scientific name: Ceyx erithaca

Location: Parts of India, Sri Lanka, and southeastern Asia.
Habitat: Streams in mature forest and old second growth.

The Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher is a warbler-sized, gem of a little bird. This small and beautiful kingfisher is incredibly colorful. It has a chestnut-violet cap and rump, golden-yellow underparts, bits of white on its throat and neck, and deep blue and black on its wings and back.

As if that wasn’t enough, it also has red-orange legs, and a hefty, deep red-orange beak. Both sexes look the same and often frequent shaded spots over shallow water in mature forest.

Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfishers might be colorful but they aren’t the easiest birds to see. This small kingfisher hides in plain sight by sitting still on its forest perch, usually in the shade.

One way to find them is by listening for their high-pitched calls, and using binoculars to peer into the shadows and scan likely spots where they might be perched.

Sadly, this beautiful little bird is probably being affected by deforestation and declining in many parts of its range.

 

Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird

Scientific name: Aethopyga gouldiae

Location: Mountains in the Himalayas and China south to northern Thailand and Vietnam.
Habitat: Montane woodlands and forest.

Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird is a gorgeous tropical bird of montane forests. Unlike brightly colored rainforest species, this one lives in much cooler climates. Males have shining red upperparts with bits of iridescent violet on their head, a yellow lower back and underparts, dull olive wings, and a long blue tail and rump.

It also has a sharp, curved beak. Females lack bright colors and are dull gray and brown with a short tail.

The Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird uses its sharp beak to probe into flowers and drink nectar. Like other sunbird species, it takes the place of hummingbird species in Asia and Africa. They act similar although sunbirds don’t hover or have other hummingbird flight capabilities.

Mrs. Gould’s Sunbirds are fairly common and easy to see in much of their mountain habitats. Much to a birder’s delight, they often forage for nectar and bugs in bushes and other low vegetation.

 

FAQ

Why are some tropical birds vibrant in color while others are dull?

Some tropical birds are vibrant in color while others are dull because the colorful birds need less camouflage than the dull colored birds.

What are the most common tropical birds?

The most common tropical birds include hummingbirds, tanagers, wading birds, and many other species.

Do tropical birds have a slow pace of life?

No, most tropical birds have the same pace of life as northern birds.

Where do most tropical birds live?

Most tropical birds live in rainforest, other tropical forests, and savannahs.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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