Monday, March 31, 2008

Oropendolas Forever

Monday, March 31, 2008

In Guatemala, in the middle of the Gran Plaza at the ancient Maya city of Tikal there is a clump of trees with a nesting colony of Montezuma oropendolas. These large dark birds are loud and conspicuous as they call to one another, and their huge baglike nests are a curiosity noticed by even the most bird-oblivious tourists.

This large member of the Icterid family (blackbirds and relatives) is a Central American native. They are quite common throughout their range and are often one of the first truly weird tropical birds added to the lifelists of visiting birders (after the 'everywhere' birds are seen).

Gorging on the fruits of a fig tree.

Males are a bright chestnut over most of the body. The tail is primarily bright yellow but the head is where the crazy color action starts, with a large light blue face patch and pink wattle. The bill is black with an orange tip. For a more complete description of the Montezuma oropendola, get Wiki with it.

Some colonies of the Montezuma oropendola may contain more than 150 nests.

The nests are intricately woven things, made up of small bits of vine, grass, and other plant fibers. The nests can hang down more than five feet, looking like really giant Baltimore oriole nests.

I've seen larger colonies of oropenola nests than the one at Tikal, but this one is easily approached and observe. The birds in the colony were nest building when I was there in early March. One or more would stay behind to thwart the ever-present guild of nest raiders hanging around the plaza. I watch a melodious blackbird make a pass at the nests as well as a great-tailed grackle. Both were routed from the area by the oropendola sentries. There were brown jays about, too, and I'll bet they eat quite a few oropendola eggs and young.

An adult Montezuma oropendola standing guard near the nest which is still under construction.

Flying from the colony to get nesting material.

Returning past Temple II with some small vines to add to the nest.

As I sat there on the warm stones of a side temple in the Gran Plaza, watching the Montezuma oropendolas come and go, I found myself wondering if the Mayan people watched the antecedents of these same birds nearly 1,000 years ago. Did the raucous burbling calls of this species echo off these same temple walls?

I am certain they did. And it's an amazing thing to ponder.


On April 2, 2008 at 12:07 AM Anonymous said...

Amazing. I remember seeing some beautiful, exotic racket-tailed drongos flying against the sunset at the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It was a solemn and fitting feeling to know that once we left the park when it closed for the night, the temples, passageways, and altars to the sky would be frequented only by the critters of the jungle. If only they could talk - what would they tell us of what they've seen in those empire days? Do they know how special and privileged they are compared to their city bird friends?


On April 5, 2008 at 10:10 PM Jayne said...

Those nests are impressive indeed. What a beautiful bird.