Plain Chachalaca

Ortalis vetula
Range Map

Plain Chachalacas range from southern Texas south through eastern Mexico, Yucatan and northern Central America. We often hear the raucous calls of these chicken-sized birds before we see them. Related to guans, curassows, and other chachalacas, the Plain Chachalaca is the only member of this clan to establish a home in the USA.

If there was a Mount Rushmore of iconic south Texan birds, the Plain Chachalaca would surely own a place on the side of the mountain. For such a large bird, they can be elusive if they want to be. When they choose stealth, these birds can stay under the radar with the best of them. But often their loud calls echo through a neighborhood, and announce their presence in a most unsubtle fashion. Like roadrunners, they prefer to run away from danger rather than fly, but flight is entirely within their repertoire. They often perch high in the canopy of the woodlands they live in.

Science recognizes four subspecies of the Plain Chachalaca:

  • O. v. mccallii lives in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and northeastern Mexico.
  • O. v. vetula lives across southern Mexico.
  • O. v. pallidiventris lives on the Yucatán Peninsula.
  • O. v. deschauenseei lives on Utila Island (Honduras).

The first time I met Plain Chachalacas was at Laguna Atascosa NWR in the spring of 2020, in the earliest days of the pandemic. Much of my time during this early phase of the global crisis was spent in my RV camp (Breeze Lake) in Brownsville. When I learned that Laguna Atascosa kept its gates open, I drove the thirty-mile route to the reserve. Since birding, as I practice it, is a sublime social distancing activity, I felt my plan was safe. I settled in front of the feeding station near the visitor center and enjoyed the coming-and-going of several species. When the chachalacas ate their fill, they ascended to the canopy and settled in.

Once in a while, Chachalacas will begin crowing. A single bird might start it up, but within seconds, all members will join the chorus. It is quite entertaining. I’m reminded of coyotes when they hear a nearby siren, and it starts the whole pack singing.

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