Rufous-headed chachalaca (Ortalis erythroptera)

Also known as: Ecuadorian chachalaca, Rufous headed chachalaca
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGalliformes
FamilyCracidae
GenusOrtalis (1)
SizeLength: 56 - 66 cm (2)

The rufous-headed chachalaca is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A relatively small member of the Cracidae family, the rufous-headed chachalaca (Ortalis erythroptera) is a brownish bird which, as its name suggests, has a reddish-brown neck and head. The upperparts of its body are brown and it has reddish-brown primary feathers and reddish-brown tips to the outer tail feathers. The underparts of the rufous-headed chachalaca are whitish, and the bird has a red dewlap, a loose fold of skin that hangs from beneath the throat (2).

The rufous-headed chachalaca’s song is a repeated raucous ‘kwak-ar-ar’, ‘cha-cha-kaw’ or shriller ‘kra-kra-ka’ phrase, and its alarm calls include honking and yelping notes (2).

The rufous-headed chachalaca has a small and declining range, restricted mainly to the Tumbesian region of west Ecuador, extreme southwest Colombia and extreme northwest Peru (2) (3) (4).

The rufous-headed chachalaca inhabits areas of dry, deciduous woodland, humid lowland forest, lowland riparian forest and lower elevation cloud-forest, as well as degraded forest habitats, forest edge, scrub, and sometimes farmland (2) (4).

The rufous-headed chachalaca belongs to a primitive family of game birds, the Galliformes, that usually play important roles as seed dispersers in tropical forests (3). The rufous-headed chachalaca has been observed consuming banana fruits, coffee berries and leaves (2). Like other chachalacas, it is likely to eat more leaves than fruit, and may also consume insects (3).

Little research has been done on the behaviour of this species, but it seems to be found in small groups of up to eight individuals (4). The rufous-headed chachalaca is thought to be monogamous, and breeding is most likely to occur during the wet season, between the months of December and May. The average clutch size is three chicks (2) (4).

The rufous-headed chachalaca has a small range which is decreasing due to vast forest fragmentation and swift loss of habitat (2) (4) (5). Even in reserves, illegal hunting, logging and other activities are occurring, and land development and colonisation are continuing in the region, in particular the extension of road networks. These developments are in turn increasing activities such as cattle ranching, logging and oil palm planting (2) (4).

Intensive grazing is also degrading the habitat of this species, and the progressive loss of habitat will soon eliminate nearly all remaining unprotected forest if effective action is not taken urgently (2) (4).

Although the rufous-headed chachalaca is present in protected areas, these populations are mostly isolated from each other, living in the small patches of the forest that remain, or at the forest edge. Lack of natural corridors is a problem for this species (4).

Hunting may also pose a threat to the rufous-headed chachalaca, although its relatively small size may mean that it is less likely to be hunted than other game birds (2) (4). As a result of habitat destruction and hunting, the population of the rufous-headed chachalaca is believed to be small and decreasing (2) (4) (5).

Significant populations of the rufous-headed chachalaca occur in Machalilla National Park in Ecuador and the Northwest Peru Biosphere Reserve in Peru, although illegal human settlements, livestock grazing, hunting and habitat clearance all have an effect on the species within these areas (2).

In Ecuador there are also several other protected areas that hold populations of the rufous-headed chachalaca, potentially including the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve and the Chongón-Colonche Protection Forest, which is the centre of a reforestation project (2). In Ecuador hunting of this species is illegal, and it is also legally protected in Peru (4) (5).

A breeding programme for the rufous-headed chachalaca is being carried out by Crax Peru at a breeding centre in Olmos, Peru (2). Further conservation measures recommended for this threatened bird include continuing surveys and population assessments, identifying further sites needing protection, implementing habitat corridors between forest patches, and undertaking studies into the rufous-headed chachalaca’s biology (2) (3) (4). It will also be important to improve protection and law enforcement within reserves and to undertake education programmes in local communities (2) (4).

More information on the rufous-headed chachalaca:

Find out about conservation in Ecuador:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. BirdLife International (January, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=64
  3. Brooks, D.M., Strahl, S.D. (2000). Curassows, Guans and Chachalacas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Cracids 2000-2004. IUCN/SSC Cracid Specialist Group, Island Press, Washington D.C. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/Themes/ssc/actionplans/cracids/SP/CowALL.pdf
  4. Brooks, D.M. (2006) Conserving the Cracids: The Most Threatened Family of Birds in the Americas. Miscellaneous Publications of The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Number 6, Houston, Texas. Accessed from:
    http://www.cracids.org/AP_Engl_ebook.pdf
  5. Vogt, C. and Ahlman, R. (2006) Bird Species Diversity in Rustic Cacao Plantations in Northwestern Ecuador. Fundación Maquipucuna, Quito, Ecuador. Available at:
    http://www.eco-index.org/search/pdfs/1155report_1.pdf