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Plain Chachalaca Life History

Habitat

Habitat Forests

Plain Chachalacas live year-round in brushy habitats of southern Texas, especially thorn forests with well-developed understory. Stream corridors with plenty of tall trees and underbrush attract chachalacas in particular. Ecologists call this habitat the Tamaulipan brushlands because most of it occurs in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Among the dominant native tree species in these habitats are Texas sabal palm, black willow, coyote willow, live oak, granjeno, southern hackberry (sugarberry), cedar elm, tenaza, Texas huisache, Texas ebony, Wright’s catclaw, guajillo, tepeguaje, honey mesquite, retama, Texas paloverde, mescal bean, colima, western soapberry, chapot, Rio Grande ash, and anacua (knockaway) . Farther south, in Middle America, these birds inhabit similar arid but also wetter environments, including rainforests, from lowlands up to elevations of 6,100 feet. This adaptable species persists in second-growth forests as well as primary forest and can even survive in coastal scrub and maritime forest, as demonstrated by introduced populations that have become established on Sapelo, Blackbeard, and Little St. Simons Islands off the coast of Georgia.

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Food

Food Fruit

Plain Chachalacas eat mostly fruit, plant matter, and invertebrates, especially insects, which they pluck, peck, or glean from the ground or vegetation. They forage mostly among tree branches, where they consume stamens, flowers, buds, leaves, seeds, and berries. To reach these foods at the tips of thin branches, they use their powerful feet and long necks, gripping the nearest branches tightly as they stretch and contort themselves, often even hanging upside down briefly to reach ripe fruit or new buds. Chachalacas forage in family groups, usually five birds. Where food is concentrated, flocks of several families may include 15 or more individuals. They visit bird feeders readily if seed is on the ground, especially milo or cracked corn, but they take other grains and some fruits as well, including mangoes, grapes, and persimmons. Plain Chachalacas often raid gardens and crops, which makes them unwelcome visitors in some parts of their range. They regularly take grit from the ground and roadsides, probably to aid in digestion and to obtain minerals and salt missing in their diet. Among the plants in their diet in the United States are Mexican ash, Texas sabal palm, cedar elm, southern hackberry, honey mesquite, coyotillo, anacua, rougeplant, dozedaisy (Aphanostrephus), and thoroughwort (Eupatorium). In Mexico, bushy bluestem, weeping juniper, lantana, and fruit from zapote and bully trees are recorded as food items. Plain Chacalacas also consume caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and small snails.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Tree

Nests are set in tree forks, large shrubs, or large vine tangles, often along streams, 5–35 feet above the ground.

Nest Description

Both male and female arrange nest material, often beginning with the disused nest of a cuckoo, ani, or thrasher, enlarging it with twigs, leaves, vines, and Spanish moss. The resulting pile of vegetation looks something like a messy squirrel nest or accumulation of plant litter. Nests average about 8.5 inches across.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-4 eggs
Egg Description:

Buffy white.

Condition at Hatching:

Downy and able to follow mother.

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Behavior

Behavior Foliage Gleaner

Plain Chachalacas live in family groups that consist of paired adults with recent offspring. In the morning, young birds sometimes join adults as they call boisterously from the tops of bushes and trees, and neighboring family groups chorus in response. As the nesting season (spring) approaches, male and female engage in courtship rituals that reaffirm the pair bond, including preening of each other’s neck and tail. Males sometimes present females with a piece of fruit as well. Males remain close to females at this time and guard them as they incubate, chasing away other male chachalacas as well as potential predators, sometimes attacking rivals if threat displays are ineffective. Fights between males can be intense, using feet and bill as weapons during conflicts that include jumping, biting, grasping, and sometimes flying assaults. The species is probably monogamous in its mating system. Once the young have fledged, they remain with parents at least through their first fall and winter, roosting next to them during the night. Family groups of chachalacas sometimes mob predators such as small mammals or large owls, gathering around them and calling loudly. After the breeding season, family groups sometimes gather into larger flocks.

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Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million. A 2016 report suggests fewer than 2,500 of these breed in the United States. Partners in Flight ranks the species an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Loss, degradation, and fragmentation of their habitats have been widespread, leaving isolated populations more vulnerable. In many parts of their range, chachalacas are vulnerable to overhunting.

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Backyard Tips

Plain Chachalacas may visit feeding stations if seed, especially milo or cracked corn, is placed on the ground. They also eat some fruits including grapes, mangoes, and persimmons.

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Credits

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Peterson, Markus J. (2000). Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Rosenberg, K. V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M. Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will (2016). Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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