Cock of the Rock

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

Tucked in the Peruvian cloud forest is a dense snarl of trees, leaves, and vines where this striking bird can sometimes be seen.  One day our small tour group had the rare and titillating experience of watching the mating dance of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. 

Named for its propensity for nesting on rock walls, Rupicola peruvianus is in the Cotinga family, native to South American cloud forests. It is a medium-sized bird, about 13 inches long.  In addition to the riotous appearance of this scarlet orange bird with the crazy discus crest, the mating display is a swirl of fast and desperate dances accompanied by an absolute cacophony of screeching. 

 

This bird is not easily found and is a treasured “life bird” for most international birders.  To get there we took several flights to the city of Cusco high in the Andes Mountains of Peru.  Here we met our group and boarded a small bus.  From the Peruvian Highlands we descended the dramatic eastern slopes for about one hundred miles through Andean villages and Quechua communities.  Slowly making our way on narrow one-lane roads hugging the side of the mountain, we watched in awe as the steep mountainsides and agricultural patchwork fields gradually gave way to the cloud forest.  Dropping from an altitude of 11,200 feet to 5,200 feet, we eventually arrived at a small and remote lodge lit by lanterns and lively with monkeys. There were so many monkeys pouncing and pounding on our roof that night that sleep was really just short naps in between their skirmishes. 

Brown Capuchin Monkeys

Brown Capuchin Monkeys


 

Before dawn we arose, still in the dark, and followed a trail to the lek where the male Cocks-of-the-Rock compete for a mate.  A lek is an area where male birds (or animals) congregate for the sole purpose of attracting a mate; there is no foraging or nesting here, just mating displays.  Although there was a small platform for bird viewing, it was primarily a thick mass of limbs and vines in the impenetrable forest; one that we never would have found on our own. 

As light began to filter through the canopy, first one male and then another approached the lek.  They were quiet and still, resting on vines about 50 feet away.  Despite their fire-engine red color, in the shadows of the trees and the dark morning they looked black and non-descript.  We, too, sat quiet and still, but oh so excited, cameras and binoculars at the ready.  A few more males came in, expressing an occasional brusque call. 

 

Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

Cock-of-the-Rock (photo: B. Page)

As more minutes ticked by, more males appeared, and now they were coming in closer to where we patiently waited.  Then our guide excitedly whispered that he heard a female in the distance. One, then another, until eight or nine males congregated in the immediate area. 

In flew the female and the rock concert began.  Some males had their wings flapping and beaks clapping, other males were perched on branches with their backs arched, or bowing and bobbing their heads.  And in the midst of this choreographical fantasia the noisy racket was deafening!  It sounded like a combination of video games and a flock of angry crows.  

 

She was indifferent to it all!  We humans were nearly bursting in the intensity of this performance, and she coyly dropped among the branches barely looking at her earnest suitors.  For each little move she made–a turn, or a drop–the forest swelled some more with the vocalizations, fluttering wingbeats, and aerial displays. 

 

The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock is the national bird of Peru.  They eat fruit and usually forage alone, and also eat insects, including the long, undulating rows of army ants that are famous in the Amazon.  Shy and surprisingly inconspicuous birds, they are difficult to locate outside of the leks.  They are so shy, in fact, that no bonding pair has ever been recorded. 

 

After about a half hour the show began to dwindle.  The energetic expenditure of this kind of display is costly to the male, so it starts when the female appears and stops quickly once she has vanished.  There was no finale, she simply left; and when she did, the males dispersed.  

 

We went back to the lek the next morning before leaving the cloud forest.   The conditions at the lek were the same as the previous day, but there was no rock concert this time.  One or two birds came in, but there was no action.  That’s when we realized, as it always goes on these nature adventures, that what we had witnessed one day doesn’t necessarily happen every day.  That precious message that nature echoes in recurring gentle reminders:  make every new day count, for no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Cloud Forest Road

Cloud Forest Road

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12 thoughts on “Cock of the Rock

  1. “That’s when we realized, as it always goes on these nature adventures, that what we had witnessed one day doesn’t necessarily happen every day. That precious message that nature echoes in recurring gentle reminders: make every new day count, for no one knows what tomorrow will bring.”

    Just what I needed to read on this snowy day where I am. 🙂 Sure the snow and ice can be a pain but it’s also beautiful and always changing.

  2. National Geographic should hire you guys– what a very vivid story and those monkeys made it a bit scary– I would not want to mess with them but the Cock of the Rock– so sad to pour your heart into a performance just to be ignored so sad– reminded me of HS:)

    • It’s funny you mention that word, RH, because when I was reviewing my notes from this trip I realized when we were in Peru we visited a lek and a lick. Both places were fantastic. I guess I’ll relay the macaw lick story sometime too. Thank you for your comment!

    • I’m glad you liked the story, Tom, and I hope you come back for more. Based on the quality of those photos of yours, I would guess you have some good stories too.
      Thanks for your visit and comment.

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