The Cock-of-the-rock

| February 12, 2014 | 1 Comment

Did you see that?

There, through the branches, a flash of orange! We ducked and strained our necks to get a better view through the dense matrix of leaves in front. The air was full of their mating calls, harsh and grating gasps that sounded like an old car horn. (See video below for a sample.) There must have been over twenty of these magnificent birds flitting through the branches, each bird a splash of gold against a green backdrop.

The opportunity to see the Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) is a visual treat unlike any other in the cloud forests of the neotropics. But you can’t just roll out of bed and see one outside your window, unless you do so at 3:30 AM and consider your “window” to be a small clearing of branches two hours away by foot. By the way, don’t forget a strong flashlight, a good pair of rubber boots, and a warm jacket.

Inside an Ecuadorian Cloud Forest - photo credit: Evan Kuras

Inside an Ecuadorian Cloud Forest — photo credit: Evan Kuras

It rained on the particular morning we set out to see the Gallo de la Peña (as the bird is called in Spanish). Our 2-hour hike consisted of thin streams of pale flashlight light illuminating little else but falling drops of water and muddy, slippery earth. When we arrived at our destination, we sat silently on cold, wet ground while we waited for the sun to rise. As we became increasingly cold in our sweat-soaked jackets, the magic of color began.

Color is a result of a few processes. Light (from the sun or a flashlight) travels through the air and collides with any objects in its way. Objects, depending on their texture and other intrinsic properties, are each very good at absorbing some parts of this light and reflecting others. If you choose to sit in a sunny room with many interesting objects your eyes will surely thank you. However, if you choose to sit on a squishy log in the middle of the night, your eyes and other parts of your body will not be too pleased. That is, until the first rays of light trickle over the horizon.

At first we could make out only the shapes of branches and leaves. Then slowly, the sunlight began transforming the drab objects into dark browns and deep greens. It was as if the world was recovering from a ghastly illness. The first haunting calls of the Gallo de la Peña rung through the clearing and assured us that our early hike had been well worth it. And then we saw the bird itself, as if it was funneling sunlight directly from the sky to its feathers to our eyes.

The magnificent cock of the rock

The magnificent Cock of the Rock – photo credit: dermoidhome via photopin cc

The Andean Cock of the Rock participates in what ecologists call “lekking.” Male birds show up at a specific location and stake out territory. Shortly after, the females arrive to “go shopping.” The males do their best to show off their flame-colored feathers and their authoritative calls. Females hop from branch to branch, assessing her options and eventually deciding on a mating partner. The males time this ceremony with the rising sun so that their feathers radiate the most electric orange color possible. The bird is a treat to see at any time of the day, but the first rays of sunlight provide just the right type of light to dazzle viewer. The birds continued to lek while the sun slowly rose and flooded the clearing with light. By the time the grays of dawn had burned away, the birds were gone.

This post was written while I was studying abroad in Ecuador. I saw the birds at the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest Reserve. You will not find the Cock of the Rock in Boston. I’m sorry.

featured image photo credit: San Diego Shooter via photopin cc

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Category: featured, Food and Travel, Nature

About the Author ()

Evan is a Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences (2014). He is studying biology and anything else he can get his hands on. Evan is interested in urban ecology, environmental education, and food justice. In his spare time, Evan enjoys making music, checking his email, and running. Evan hails from Yorktown, New York.

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