Cock of the Rock burns bright in forests of Ecuador

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The Andean Cock of the Rock is a gorgeously colored bird.

In the cool pre-morning darkness, Margaret and I were in a group of 10 birders and two guides hiking down a steep, narrow trail in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. We were very careful. The loose rocks and slippery leaves made it a treacherous walk.

After traveling a hundred yards, we crowded into a small bird blind, trying to be very quiet and still. The blind was really too small for our group, but we waited patiently, eager to see the Cock of the Rock.

There was movement in the understory of the forest. Margaret and I strained our eyes to see the bird but only saw moving leaves. Finally, I saw a small red spot in the dense foliage. Then I saw the head and a small spot that was maybe an eye.

As the sun came up, more and more of the bird’s body became visible. It seemed like he was purposefully trying to hide from our cameras, always two trees back in the forest with a leaf hiding his face. But patience paid off. He finally came out into the open, and he presented a full view of his body.

Wow! What a bird!

More than half the Cock of the Rock males are never chosen for breeding by females.
More than half the Cock of the Rock males are never chosen for breeding by females.

He looked around the clearing and when he was securely perched on a branch, he made a few harsh-sounding calls. Soon a second male Cock of the Rock appeared. The original bird seemed upset. He made more sounds and bobbing head movements. The newcomer soon departed.

The Andean Cock of the Rock is a stunning creature, with a color scheme that does not look real and seems out place in a dark green forest. He is a chunky bird 12 inches long and a member of the Cotinga family, a large spectacular group of neo-tropical birds.

His upper plumage is a bright reddish-orange. His outer wing feathers are black, with the inner feathers a pearl gray. He has a frontal crest on the top of his head that comes forward and covers most his bill.

The female does not share the male’s beauty. She has a smaller crest and is a dull reddish-brown color. We did not see a female come to the lek.

The lek is an area where males come, gathering to attract females for mating. This is similar to the breeding habits of the Midwestern prairie chicken of the United States. Ornithologists have reported as many as twelve Cock of the Rock males at a lek.

At the lek the males will display by strutting, jumping, bowing, bobbing their heads, clicking their bills and flapping their wings. When a female approaches, the activity becomes more intense, with the males grunting and making squawks as they try to get her attention.

The female might appear several times before choosing a breeding male. When she does select the male, she may return two or three more times to mate with him before she lays her eggs.

Studies have shown one male may breed with as many as 30 percent of the females in the area, and 57 percent of males are never selected by any female for breeding. This is a way to ensure only the best genes are passed on to a new generation.

My morning observation of the Cock of the Rock and the reading I have done about this unusual species of bird stirs my interest and makes me want to return to South America to see this creature again and observe its mating behavior.

Margaret and I stopped at the Papallacta Springs in Ecuador, a private park where we saw a dozen species of humming birds at feeders located in the park. We were traveling with Road Scholar Travel Company.
Margaret and I stopped at the Papallacta Springs in Ecuador, a private park where we saw a dozen species of humming birds at feeders located in the park. We were traveling with Road Scholar Travel Company.

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