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The Cock-of-the-Rock—an Amazonian Jungle Beauty in Brazil

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EVEN matter-of-fact naturalists end up waxing poetic when describing the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, a dazzling, little-known bird of the Amazon rain forest. “A mass of brilliant flame,” wrote one. “A fiery comet,” said another. “Difficult to surpass in . . . sheer glamour,” concluded a third. The sight of it, they all agree, is unforgettable. What, though, makes this pigeon-size bird so memorable? For one thing, its colorful looks.

The male cock-of-the-rock sports an orange-colored crest that looks like a fan and hides his entire bill. A chestnut stripe, running along the margin, accents the crest’s flawless semicircular shape. From crest to claws, the bird is wrapped in mostly orange plumage. His wings, black with a patch of white, are covered by a fluffy layer of golden-orange feathers, which make him look as though he were wrapped in a shawl. “Their form and appearance,” sums up the book Birds of the Caribbean, “are striking beyond words.” Yet, there is more to this bird than meets the eye. His plumage also reflects his character. In what way?

Well, you will agree that in a dark-green rain forest, a bright-orange outfit is hardly the color to wear if you want to blend in. This jungle dandy, however, wants to be seen. He uses his splashy looks to expel rivals and allure admirers.

Border Disputes and Inheritance Squabbles

Early in the year, during the mating season, male cocks-of- the-rock descend to well-defined forest areas called leks, which are staging grounds for the birds’ annual courtship dances. This word “lek” probably stems from the Swedish verb att leka, meaning “to play.” Indeed, for years naturalists understood the birds’ courtship capers to be nothing more than play—a pleasant matinee on the forest floor. More recently, though, they learned that a lek is not only a dance floor but a wrestling arena and a showroom as well. Why?

After a group of male cocks-of-the-rock invade a lek, each bird marks a patch of forest floor as his private court by clearing it of fallen leaves. He also claims the perches in the vines above the court, so that his territory forms a cylinder about five feet [1.5 m] wide and six feet [2 m] high. With some 50 birds squeezed into one lek, says researcher Pepper W. Trail, their courts are “among the most tightly clustered of any lek bird.” The result? Border disputes and inheritance squabbles.

Their border disputes resemble excited but harmless war dances—a burst of head bobbing, bill snapping, wing flicking, and feather whirring, punctuated by crowing squawks and high leaps into the air. After a minute or two, when each bird feels that he has impressed the other, they both retreat within their borders. However, when two birds have an eye on the same piece of premium lek property left vacant by the death of another bird, the dispute turns into a classic inheritance battle.

“The birds lock their powerful talons together, flail at each other with their wings, and occasionally lock beaks. Such matches,” writes Trail in National Geographic magazine, “can last as long as three hours and leave the combatants panting.” If the score is even after this first round, the birds take a break, but after that, the cockfight resumes and goes on until the sole heir has been established. No wonder that this bird is called cock-of-the rock!

Yet, even before the forest dust has settled, the feisty wrestler changes into a living statue, and the lek becomes a showroom. Why this new act? The last part of the bird’s name, cock-of-the-rock, points to the answer.

And the Winner Is . . .

While the males are quarreling on the forest floor, a few inconspicuously colored birds are quietly mending their nests in sheltered niches of nearby rocks. Yes, they are the female cocks-of-the-rock. Unlike the male, the female will not make the final round of an avian beauty contest. She is, researcher David Snow writes delicately, “a very different bird.” Her head holds a small crown, “a stunted version of the male’s magnificent crest, which merely gives the head a faintly ludicrous appearance.” Her short legs with large feet support a drab-brown-colored body of “rather heavy, ungainly form.”

Nevertheless, for our jungle dandies, she is a winner. When she glides into the branches above the lek, with a high-pitched kiuoou call, she causes every orange-feathered head to turn and triggers a show that ranks “among the most interesting and impressive courtship displays in the avian world.” (The Life and Mysteries of the Jungle) What happens? Researcher Trail says that at the first sight of a female, “the lek explodes with color, movement, and sound,” as each male tries to outshine the others and capture the attention of the visitor. Next, the males bound from their perches and land with a thump and a squawk on their courts. Their beating wings hold the attention of the female and clean the courts of fallen leaves as well. Then, suddenly, the pandemonium stops. The decisive moment has arrived.

Each male bends stiffly, with his display plumage fully spread, and freezes as if in a trance. His fanned-out crest hides his bill while his fluffy feathers obscure the form of his body, making him look like an orange flower fallen on the forest floor. “A displaying cock-of-the-rock is so bizarre,” says one source, “that at first sight it is hard to believe that it is a bird.”

The female, though, knows a flower from a suitor and descends toward three or four silent males, who keep their bodies flattened and their backs turned toward the female. Their heads, however, are tilted so that one eye is looking upward, trained on the prize. Minutes pass as the female makes up her mind, but finally, she picks the winner. She lands behind her favorite, hops toward him, leans forward, and picks at the flossy fringes of his wing feathers. Then the male comes alive. They mate on his court or on a nearby perch. After that, the female flies off. She often returns to the same male when the next mating season comes around.

Until the following courtship season, the jungle dandy forgets about his mate and does not bother with looking after offspring either. Carefree, he gets ready for the next show, while the female raises the family on her own. You’re right, that sounds like an unfair division of the work load, but it is just as well for the female and her chicks that the male keeps his distance. After all, having an orange bird parading around your nest is as sensible as having a neon sign pointing to your hideout.

The Next Generation

The female’s dull plumage is a perfect covering for the two spotted, brownish eggs she lays in a massive mud nest that is glued to a rock wall with the help of the bird’s saliva. After mother sits on the eggs for four weeks, the chicks hatch. Though no beauties at birth, they are well equipped to cope with their days in the nest. Shortly after leaving their eggshells, explains researcher Trail, they hook their sharp talons into the nest lining and, with their strong legs, hang on firmly whenever the mother bird scrambles for footing.

The mother bird diligently feeds the chicks with fruits and an occasional insect or lizard. After a year the plumage of a young male is still brown, but his head already sports a small crest. At two years of age, his brown feathers give way to golden-orange plumage that transforms him, as one naturalist wrote, into “one of the most beautiful birds in the world.”

Despite the destruction of the forest home of the cock-of-the-rock, nature lovers hope that man will not rob this colorful Amazonian performer of the chance to continue its fascinating dance of life.

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