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Bird in the Spotlight: Royal Flycatcher

19 February, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Tropical Royal Flycatcher. Photo by Tom Ambrose.

The forests of the Neotropics hold some of the most colorful and striking birds in the world, including the aptly named Tropical Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus). This species has a vast distribution from southern Mexico through Central America and across the Amazon Basin. They can be seen sallying for insects in both primary forests and degraded habitats, but they rely on tall, undisturbed forests or seasonally flooded váreza forests for nesting. The female constructs a messy, cylindrical nest suspended several meters above the forest floor, similar to that of a New World oriole or cacique, and she incubates the eggs while the male defends the territory. Royal Flycatchers have a concealed crest of red or orange feathers on their heads which can be fanned into a broad crown and is displayed by both sexes during courtship, preening, and intra- and interspecific skirmishes. This species is known to fan its crest and sway its head while in the hand, which may be an attempt startle the “predator” or may simply be a quirk of their biology that happens when netted. Recently, the Atlantic Royal Flycatcher (O. swainsoni) that occurs only in coastal Brazil was split as a separate species, and Bird Life International also recognizes the Northern Royal Flycatcher (O. mexicanus) and the vulnerable Pacific Royal Flycatcher (O. occidentalis) as distinct species. The latter occurs in disjunct forest patches in the Pacific lowlands of western Ecuador, where it is threatened by habitat fragmentation, degradation by livestock, and rapid deforestation. All Royal Flycatcher taxa rely on unlogged forests for nesting, so timber harvesting and mining remains a threat across their expansive range. 

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