Not only does the White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis) rank pretty high on the cuteness scale, it is also an interesting species from an ecological perspective. Puffbirds are most closely related to jacamars, toucans and woodpeckers. They are primarily insect and arthropod eaters and are considered to be flycatching birds along with tyrant flycatchers, and nunbirds. Even though they eat spiders, frogs and lizards taken from the ground they are known for sitting perfectly still in the forest understory until a flying insect meal passes by when it darts out to catch its prey in midair. It will then take it back to its perch to beat it against the branch before swallowing it. Their apparent lethargy, as they sit and wait for prey to come by, is really a honed hunting behavior.
You can find either White-necked Puffbirds or White-whiskered Puffbirds here on the trails of Friends of the Osa’s Osa Biodiversity Center between Piro Research Station and the Greg Gund Conservation Center. Both species separate themselves vertically in the forest. You’ll find the White-necked Puffbird higher up in the canopy and the White-whiskered Puffbird down low where they don’t directly compete with each other for food resources. In either case however they are difficult to see for their stealthy style.
Puffbirds build their nests in active termite nests or dig out a burrow in the ground or on the side of a small hillock with a short entrance tunnel with twigs and dead leaves extending out an additional 3 inches. The actual nest is lined with leaves. Those that build in termite nests seem to tolerate termites crawling all over them during incubation (From Alexander Skutch’s book of Birds of Tropical America, 1983). Ground burrows can be as long as 22 inches.
So why are they called puffbirds? As you can see from the photo, they are stout birds with fairly large heads and their feathers have a puffed-out appearance. When they get excited they puff out and swing their tail back and forth. Their abundant puffy plumage makes their short legs almost invisible. Note the striking red eyes as well!
We would like to thank Gianfranco Gomez for allowing us to showcase his photographs. You can find more of his work at The Drake Bay Rainforest Chalet website.