Rufous Motmot: A Bird That Practices Self-Mutilation

Rufous Motmot

Some years ago while walking through a dense area of the Panamanian jungle, I was nearly frightened out of a year’s growth by a loud squawking cry almost in my ear. When I was not immediately attacked by a ferocious man-eating animal, I gathered courage and looked around. The only living creature I could locate was a greenish bird with a reddish breast and long tail perched on a vine some thirty feet away. Again the raucous cry broke the silence, and to my sheepish surprise I saw that it came from this bird. Such was my introduction to the great rufous motmot, a bird related to the kingfishers.

Although the cry of the great rufous motmot seems oddity enough for one bird, it has another startling habit. Apparently not satisfied with the decorations given it by nature, it prefers to change its appearance by actually mutilating itself, although the consequences are not serious. The tail of the motmot is composed of several feathers, the tips of which, in the adult, are shaped like tennis rackets. This peculiar shape is the result of the bird’s own actions. In young birds the tail feathers are complete, but the adults bite off all the barbs from the central shaft of the feathers an inch or so from the tips, leaving the tips themselves barbed.