The Great Blue Turaco: a powerful bird in the African Etno-Ornithology

The Great Blue Turaco, Corythaeola cristata (Cuculiformes - Musophagidae), is a large bird, in fact is the largest member of the Musophagidae family, reaching 70-75 cm in length. They have a pleasant expression, and are also beautiful, combining in their plumage colors such as turquoise-blue, yellow, greenish-yellow, chestnut, and grayish, They have a conspicuous blue-black raised crest on forecrown and crown, and a large convex bill bright yellow with red tip.

Found in equatorial W Africa, from Guinea to Nigeria, and from the Congo Basin to Kenya and Tanzania, the Great Blue Turaco is one of those bird species that have or have had a traditional use in Africa, and have been studied in the field of Ethno-Ornithology

In the Congo, the Mbuti hunter-gatherers believe that the Great Blue Turacos are dangerously powerful birds, mediators between the spirit world and human society. It is believed that the Great Blue Turaco may cause deaf to the newborn, if its parents eat the bird during the pregnancy.  And also said to be closely associated with okapis (a giraffid artiodactyl mammal native to the Ituri Rainforest), informing the okapis of danger by crying loudly on the treetop over the okapis.

References: [1] - [2] - [3] - [4]

Photo credit: ©Bara Chouinard | Locality: captive - US, Florida (2011)

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Red-crested Turaco (Tauraco erytholophus)

…a species of turaco that is endemic to parts of western Angola in Africa, occurring mainly in forested habitats. Like other species of turacos, red-crested turacos are primarily frugivorous (fruit eaters) in nature but they are known to feed on other types of plant matter as well. The red-crested turaco is the national bird of Angola, and has become a symbol for conservation nationally.


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Image: Daniel Demczuk

Even the ‘easy’ etymologies can be complicated:  there is a family of birds native to the southern regions of Africa known as the musophagidae, or banana eaters.  Word purists will tell you that proper word formation won’t mix Latin and Greek roots, but in this case, well, it’s even more complicated.  Musa is a Late Latinization of the Arabic mauz (موز), which was introduced to European sensibilities in book form with the publication of the 11th century Arabic encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which was translated to Latin. The -phagous suffix comes from the Greek word meaning eater of, from phagein meaning to eat, literally to have a share of food.  Turacos (such as the one pictured) are medium sized colorful birds-although they have been placed with cuckoo birds in the Cuculiformes order, recent research has lead away from this, and they may be reassigned to a different order. 

Image of a Guinea Turaco, aka Green Turaco (Tauraco persa),South Africa, by Ian Wilson.

There are about 28 turaco species in the Family Musophagidae, all native to equatorial Africa. Seeing one of these handsome birds in its native forest or woodland habitat takes patience, persistence, and a pretty good set of binoculars. Turacos spend almost all their time in the tree canopy, where their blue, green, or gray hues (depending on the species) keep them camouflaged as they forage for fruit, leaves, and flower buds. The blue and gray colors are the result of light refracting from structures within the feathers. In other birds, green and red are also the result of refraction or melanin—only in the turacos are red and green feathers due to actual pigments. (photo: Paul E.M.)

Western Grey Plantain-eater - Crinifer piscator

The Western Grey Plantain-eater, scientifically named Crinifer piscator (Cuculiformes - Musophagidae), is a West African species whose call is one of the most familiar of this area.

Like all turacos, this one is strongly territorial. They can be seen in family groups for long time. The group may travel large distances to find abundant food source such as a particularly favoured fruiting tree. 

They are monogamous with strong pair-bonds. These birds display effusive greetings bowing their heads and spread their tail fan. Rituals also include mutual exchange of food and loud calls when they perch in the treetops.

References: [1] - [2]

Photo credit: ©Isidro Vila Verde | Locality: Abuko Reserve, Sara Job Kunda, Western, The Gambia (2007)

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Violet Turaco (Musophaga violacea)

Sometimes known as the “violaceous plantain eater” the violet turaco is a species of turaco (Musophagidae), that occurs in west Africa, ranging from Senegal through Nigeria, with an isolated population in Chad and the Central African Republic. Violet turacos are social birds, travelling in large flocks in tropical savannas, wetlands, woodlands and forests. Like other turacos, violet turacos feed mainly on fruits, with an affinity for figs, they will also feed on invertebrates, leaves, buds, and flowers.


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Images: Doug Janson and DickDaniels

The White-bellied Go-away-birds and their alarm calls

Corythaixoides leucogaster (Cuculiformes - Musophagidae) is an African bird that has the peculiar common name of White-bellied Go-away-bird, because of their sentinel calls that (they say) sound like “Go Away” (listen here).

White-bellied Go-away-birds are also distinctive by the crest on the top of their head, along with its facial pattern. But the really interesting thing about this bird is that the Gunther’s dik-diks (Madoqua guentheri) responds to go-away bird alarm calls with anti predator behavior.

Recent studies suggest that alarm calls elicit responses not only from predators and conspecifics (organisms that belong to the same species) but also from other species (in this case, eavesdropping or cooperating heterospecifics).

When dik-diks hear the go-away bird alarm calls, they respond increasing alertness and adopting a protective behavior that include the immediate running, decreasing the time they spend foraging, increasing the looking rate, and increasing the time they spend stand looking.

Dik-diks neither produce complex alarm calls nor do they live socially, yet their extreme vulnerability to predators creates a strong selective force that may drive the evolution of associative learning abilities. This process is named associative learning evolution.

References: [1] - [2]

Photo credit: ©Amano Samarpan | Locality: Southern Ethiopia

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Eastern Plantain-eater (Crinifer zonurus)

Also known as the Eastern grey plantain-eater, the eastern plantain-eater is a large (20 in) species of turaco (Musophagidae) which occurs in open woodland habitats in tropical eastern Africa. Eastern plantain-eaters are fairly noisy and gregarious birds, with groups feeding on a wide range of fruits (especially figs) and other vegetable matter. 


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Image: Tom Tarrant


Ruwenzori Turaco (Ruwenzoromis jhonstoni)

…a species of turaco that makes up the monotypic genus Ruwenzoronis. R. jhonstoni occurs in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like other turacos R. jhonstoni spends most of its live in the canopies of trees feeding mainly on fruits with the occasional supplement of leaves.


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Images: Rich Hoyer and Travel Rwanda

Western Plantain-eater (Crinifer piscator)

Also known as the Grey Plantain-eater or the Western Grey Plantain-eater, the western plantain-eater is a large species of Turaco (Musophagidae) that is a resident breeder in open woodland habitats in tropical west Africa. C. piscator is very similar to the related eastern plantain-eater, but lacks the white tail bars of its relative and instead has distinct chest bars and dark wing feather shafts. Western plantain-eaters are known to feed mainly on fruit, notably figs, plantains, seeds, and occasionally other vegetable matter.


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Image: Open Cage