Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.
One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.
And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.
We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.
In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.
There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.
Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.
Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.
This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.
One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.
We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.
Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.
In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).
We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.
Birds that wear party streamers for tails: they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.
Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos by Athena Alexander.