The above are quotes I hear variations of all the time regarding one of the Valley’s most unique birds, the Plain Chachalaca. No matter what the reaction, chachalacas always get a big response from both locals and visiting birders. They are one of my personal favorite South Texas specialty birds, and I often find myself ensconced in watching them as they run, hop, and sometimes gawkily forage for fruits in Quinta Mazatlan. Yet, despite the charisma of this tropical species, few scientific studies have been done on it. Here I want to explore and briefly summarize some of what is known about the Plain Chachalaca, with most of the information coming from The Birds of North America (hereafter called BNA) account.
The range of the Plain Chachalaca goes from southern Central America up to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas. Also note the small range spots further north on the Texas Coast (San Patricio County) and on the coast of Georgia! These two spots represent areas where chachalacas were introduced by people. Apparently the Georgia population is still going strong!
Chachalacas are a permanent resident, but there is little knowledge if they move locally between seasons. In the LRGV, they are typically found in dense thornforest and riparian woodlands, but can also be seen in more disturbed habitats, such as forest edges and towns. They’re surprisingly urban, and it was always a pleasure to see the chachalacas strut through my family’s yard in Edinburg. Their ability to reside in neighborhoods and do quite well in small urban nature centers is encouraging.
Most of the information on Plain Chachlacas in the LRGV came from a man named Wayne Marion. He did several natural history studies, which remain to be the most comprehensive coverage of the species in LRGV.
Chachalacas are predominantly vegetarian, but are also known to eat insects and snails. I’ve personally seen them eat: Anacua fruits, Wild Olive flowers, Yucca flowers, plant seedlings (unfortunately they’ve eaten some that I planted!), Pigeonberry fruits, Texas Persimmon fruits, and Turk’s Cap fruits and flowers. In Quinta Mazatlan, they of course love to eat the bird food we provide at the feeders, where they come out in droves to eat the peanut butter suet (click here to see what I mean!).
One thing you’ll notice in the video is the calls the chachalacas are making. Those are described as “purr/mutter” calls in the BNA, and are thought to be contact calls to keep birds together. What they’re most famous for, and why they’re named, is the loud “Cha-cha-lac!” calls they raucously shout. The males, with deeper voices, starts the call, then the higher pitched voice of the female joins in – multiple pairs of chachalacas will perch in tree tops and all create their nearly deafening chorus. In the late summer, the cicadas and the chachalacas can make it difficult to even hear yourself think with their racket.
Plain Chachalacas refurbish the old nests of other birds for their own use, and usually lay 3 eggs per clutch. Interestingly, on a couple occasions I’ve seen the large, rough textured eggs (almost as big as chicken eggs) in the open on the ground. I don’t know how this happens or why, but I would expect that these ground eggs (pictured above) don’t end up hatching.
I like to keep track of the bird community here at Quinta Mazatlan, and have been curious as to how many chachalacas are in the park. The easiest way to try to count all the chachalacas is in the morning when we put out the bird food. The high count seems to be around 30 individuals!
There is a lot to be learned about Plain Chachalacas, but fortunately they seem to be doing well here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. So long as we keep protecting and providing the native habitat, we’ll be able to enjoy the presence of chachalacas for generations. If you have any anecdotes about chachalacas, whether it be what you’ve seen them eat, an interesting behavior, or just a fun story, please share in the comments!