Naturalist Newsletter of April 21, 2008
written in the community of 28 de Junio, in the Central Valley,
8 kms east of Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT. 16° 18'N, LONG. -92° 28'W.
The other day a bird slowly and deliberately walked, not hopped, from a woods' edge and continued across open ground, occasionally stabbing at prey on the ground and gulping them down. With its gray-brown upperparts and cinnamon underparts it looked a bit like a stretched-out version of an American Robin, except that it was larger (10.5 inches instead of 8.5), had a proportionally longer tail, and its slender beak was longer and curved downward. Most striking, however, was its mask. Each eye was surrounded by a patch of pale, powder-blue feathers and this patch was neatly lined in black, with a thin, white line above the whole thing. It was a lovely face, unlike anything seen up north except maybe on certain ducks such as the Green-winged Teal.
I was close enough to see yet another feature: The bird's feet were "zygodactyl": Two toes forward, two backward. That, the slender, curved beak and long tail were enough to say "cuckoo" to me, and the cuckoo section of my field guide quickly revealed that here was a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, MOROCOCCYX ERYTHROPYGUS, distributed from Mexico's central Pacific coast to Costa Rica.
Howell describes the Cuckoo Family as "united by common anatomical features but strikingly diverse in appearance and habits." In most of North America we just have look-alike Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, so the "strikingly diverse" characterization might surprise most Northern birders. Only when you meet the arid Southwest's Roadrunners, and south Florida's Smooth-billed Anis, who also are cuckoos, do you start becoming a believer. In a way, our Lesser Ground-Cuckoo is sort of a bridge between mostly arboreal northern cuckoos and mostly southern roadrunners.
It was something to see how this Lesser Ground-Cuckoo sometimes would freeze during his slow walking and suddenly he'd blend into the parched-brown landscape around him so perfectly that he'd almost disappear, even if you were looking right at him.