There are fantastically colorful, plentiful and varied birds in almost every region of Brazil, making the country a major destination for birding trips. The more powerful your binoculars, the better! The biggest Brazilian bird is the flightless rhea (Portuguese: ema), found in the cerrado and Pantanal. It grows to 1.4m tall and weighs some 30kg. The smallest are the numerous hyperactive types of hummingbird, found throughout the country.
Much like great cats, birds of prey command respect and are always an object of fascination. Brazil has around 40 species of eagle, hawk, falcon, kite, caracara and kestrel, some quite common, and they’re not very easy to tell apart.
The crested caracara is common in many areas – it’s 50cm to 60cm long with a 1.2m or 1.3m wingspan. Its broad diet includes fish dying from a lack of oxygen as Pantanal ponds dry up, and animals that have been run over on roads or burnt in forest fires. Also common in Amazonia and the Pantanal are the yellow-headed caracara, about 40cm long, and the black-collared hawk, a reddish-brown fish-catcher, with a white head and chest, that reaches lengths of 45cm. The osprey, or fishing eagle, is bigger (55cm to 60cm; wingspan 1.45m to 1.7m), with a darker brown body.
Brazil’s most emblematic bird of prey (and the largest in the Americas) is the ferocious, rare and enormously powerful harpy eagle, weighing up to 10kg, with a wingspan of up to 2.5m, and claws bigger than human hands. It enjoys a diet of monkeys, sloths, armadillos and other large animals, and nests at least 25m above the ground in big jungle trees. Though a few harpies still inhabit Mata Atlântica, the bird is found chiefly in Amazonia. It’s not yet endangered but will become so if destruction of its rain-forest habitat continues.
These beautiful little birds, with their dazzling iridescent colors, may be seen all over Brazil, including in cities. They flit rapidly, almost insectlike, from one spot to the next, and can even fly backwards. The lyrical Brazilian name for them is beija-flor (flower-kisser). There are many dozens of species (family Trochilidae) and they occupy an important role in Brazilian art and folklore, often mentioned in music and poetry. Even one of Rio’s best-known samba schools is called Beija-Flor.
These are the kinds of bird that have come to symbolize tropical rain forests, and people travel from all over the world to see some of Brazil’s dozens of species. These charismatic, colorful birds have strong, curved beaks that they use to break open seeds and nuts and they also eat soft clay to temper the acidity of their other foods.
Macaws, the biggest parrots, grab most of the glamor. You can distinguish them by their dead-straight body shape when flying, and straight-as-an-arrow trajectory. They often go about in pairs and make a lot of raucous noise as they travel up to 25km a day foraging for food.
The name scarlet macaw is given to two large, gloriously colored species – Ara chloroptera, also called the red-and-green macaw, which grows up to 95cm long, with blue-and-green wings and a red-striped face, and Ara macao, which is a bit smaller with blue-and-yellow wings. The latter bird is restricted to Amazonia, but the red-and-green macaw also inhabits the Pantanal, cerrado and even caatinga. The blue-and-yellow macaw, about 85cm long, is also widely distributed. The yellow covers its underside, the blue its upper parts.
Unfortunately, macaws’ beautiful plumage makes them a major target for poachers. Poaching contributed greatly to the decline of the endangered hyacinth macaw, the world’s largest parrot (1m long). This gorgeous bird, deep blue with splashes of yellow, is down to a wild population of about 3000 and conservationists are struggling to bring it back from the brink. Its range extends from Pará state to the Pantanal; the recently established Parque Nacional das Nascentes do Rio Parnaíba in Piauí state is a good place to see it.
Among the best-known and most colorful groups of Latin American birds, toucans have huge rainbow-colored beaks, sometimes as long as their bodies, enabling them to reach berries at the end of branches. But the beak is light and almost hollow, allowing the bird to fly with a surprising agility. Toucans live at forest treetop level and are often best seen from boats.
Brazil’s biggest is the toco toucan, whose habitat ranges from Amazonia to the cerrado to the Pantanal. Around 55cm long, including its bright orange beak, the plumage is black except for a white neck area. In Amazonia you may see the white-throated toucanor the yellow-ridged toucan. Both are fairly large birds, with black beaks.
This family of medium-sized, brightly colored, sometimes iridescent birds with long tails includes the celebrated quetzals. You may see them perching and flying at medium heights in tropical forests. Amazonia has at least seven species, including the pavonine quetzal and the blue-crowned trogon. The latter also inhabits the Pantanal.
Commoner freshwater fishing birds include types of cormorant and the similar anhinga. You can often see them standing on waterside branches, their wings spread out to dry.
Other highly visible birds in the Pantanal and Amazonia include many of the Ciconiiformes order – herons, egrets, storks, ibises, spoonbills and their relatives. You’ll see them flapping inelegantly along waterways or standing motionless ready to jab for fish with their long beaks. The tiger heron, with its brown and black stripes, is particularly distinctive. The sight of hundreds of snowy egrets gathering in a waterside rookery looks like a sudden blooming of white flowers in the treetops.
Of the storks, the tall (1.40m) black-headed and scarlet-necked jabiru has become a symbol of the Pantanal and is also found in Amazonia. In the Pantanal, also look for the similarly sized maguari stork, which is mainly white with a pinkish face, and the smaller wood stork, with its black head and beak with a curved end. The beautiful pink roseate spoonbill is another Pantanal resident. The spectacular scarlet ibis is a deep pink, is 50cm long and is found living in flocks along parts of the Northeast coast and on the Ilha de Marajó, an island located at the mouth of the Amazon River.
Kingfishers fly across or along rivers as boats approach. The biggest species is the 42cm-long ringed kingfisher, which is predominantly bright turquoise with a rust-colored underside.