In a Costa Rican garden: Gray-headed Chachalaca

A large, brown bird moving in the trees in our garden is very likely to be the Gray-headed Chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps), one of two chachalaca species found in Costa Rica. The other species, the Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is restricted to the province of Guanacaste in the dry north-west. Other species range from southern Texas to South America but the Gray-headed is found only from Honduras south to Colombia.

With their long, stout legs and relatively small heads chachalacas look superficially like turkeys. Alhough they can run quite swiftly on their strong legs, they are most at home in trees.

Gray-headed Chachalaca with güitite berries; photo by John Beer

If you find one chachalaca others are invariably nearby. They are a social species forming groups of up to 12 individuals in my own garden, and also in John and Milena’s at nearby Santa Rosa:

Gray-headed Chachalacas at the bird table; photo by John Beer

Chachalacas make short work of food placed on bird tables and can be a pest in vegetable gardens. In thick foliage they can hide themselves surprisingly well for such a large bird (51 cm). In the early morning I often hear them betray their presence with a soft peeping sound. This makes you think that it must be made by some much smaller bird, but when alarmed a loud and prolonged cackle is emitted that extends through the whole flock and startles you from your bed. I then often go to check whether perhaps the Bicolored Hawk (Accipiter bicolor) is nearby.

Raising the alarm, Santa Rosa de Turrialba

John caught the group below allopreening, which, like dust bathing, is a typical behaviour of this very social bird:

Gray-headed Chachalacas socialising!

Here’s a nice shot of an adult bird; note the rufous wing feathers:

Gray-headed Chachalaca in full sunlight at Santa Rosa de Turrialba; photo by John Beer

Young birds of much smaller size are often seen, almost always accompanying adults:

Chachalaca family group; photo by John Beer

Two birds in display seem to wave bye-bye!

Happily the Gray-headed Chachalaca seems no longer to be hunted by locals for the dinner table. Its numbers are on the rise and it can easily be seen in any garden with trees in our area.

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