Fr : Ortalide à tête rousse
Ang : Rufous-headed Chachalaca
All : Rotkopfguan
Esp : Chachalaca Cabecirrufa - Guacharaca Cabecirrufa - Guacharaca Colorada
Ita : Ciacialaca testarossa
Nd : Roodkopchachalaca
Sd : Rosthuvad chachalaca

Roger Ahlman
Pbase Galleries Peru and Ecuador

John Anderson
John Anderson Photo Galleries

Didier Buysse
Vision d’Oiseaux

Text by Nicole Bouglouan


HANDBOOK OF THE BIRDS OF THE WORLD Vol 2 by Josep del Hoyo-Andrew Elliot-Jordi Sargatal - Lynx Edicions - ISBN: 8487334156

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Rufous-headed Chachalaca
Ortalis erythroptera

Galliformes Order – Cracidae family

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca is included in the subfamily Penelopinae, family Cracidae. The genus Ortalis is usually considered the most primitive in this family, as these birds are mostly small in size and have plain coloration with few facial ornaments. They usually prefer more open habitats than other Cracidae which are mostly forest birds.
But the Rufous-headed Chachalaca frequents various types of woodlands and is affected by deforestation in some parts of the range, and by hunting pressure in Ecuador and Peru.
This species has restricted range and is the least secure of all the chachalacas. It is very localized and confined to heavily transformed lowlands of W Ecuador.

Length: 55-65 cm
Weight: M: 900g – F: 760 g

The adult has brownish upperparts including wings and tail. The wings show reddish-brown primaries and the tail has reddish-brown tips to outer rectrices.
The underparts are whitish, but the breast is greyish-brown.
Head and neck are rufous. We can see a red dewlap hanging from beneath chin and throat.
The bill is pale bluish-grey. The eyes are brown, surrounded by greyish-blue facial skin. Legs and feet are pale blue-grey.
Both sexes are similar in plumage, but the male is slightly larger than the female.
The juvenile is not described, but the downy chicks have pale brown and black pattern above and paler below which serves as camouflage.

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca has fragmented populations in W Ecuador (from Esmeraldas S to El Oro and Loja) to extreme NW Peru. Its presence in SW Colombia (Nariño) has been confirmed.  

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca frequents dry deciduous forest and wet cloud forest, but also forest edge, scrub and brushy areas. It can be seen sometimes in farmland in tropical coastal areas. It needs areas with water during the dry season.
This species can be seen from sea-level up to 1850 metres of elevation, and probably higher.

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca, like all Cracidae, is a vocal bird with a wide repertoire of songs and calls. In the early morning and even before dawn, several birds utter an almost continuous “chachalaca chorus” while perched in trees.
The main call is a repeated “kwak-ar-ar-ar” or a shriller “kra-kra-kra” often initiated by the male. Other calls include soft cooing or clucking given by pairs, and also harsh “cow” and repeated “kawusk”.

From some observations, the Rufous-headed Chachalaca feeds on leaves, banana fruits and coffee berries, and it probably takes insects too. Plant matter is the main food and includes fruits, seeds, flowers, buds, shoots and leaves, the latter usually eaten in large quantities.
When foraging in cultivated areas, it often feeds on the ground in maize fields. They often forage in groups of 4-10 birds.

The Rufous-headed Chachalacas are monogamous with strong pair-bonds. Both mates are territorial and defend the territory. They can become aggressive and some conflicts can lead to fighting.
The courtship displays are poorly known, but they seem to be simple, including strutting, calling with raised head, mutual preening, pecking, chases and courtship feeding. These displays are performed both on the ground and in treetops. The copulation takes place on the ground.

This species is probably sedentary.

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca is able to move through dense vegetation at great speed. It can be very agile and uses its wings to help and keep the balance. This movement is half way between running and flying.
However, sustained flights are rare. The bird makes a burst of wingbeats followed by long glides during which the long tail provides a good support.

The breeding season occurs between December and May, in parallel to the wet season.
The Rufous-headed Chachalaca builds the nest in tree fork, by using sticks, twigs, grass and leaves. The nest may appear small for the bird.

The female lays 2-3 white to creamy-white eggs, and incubates alone during 26-28 days (in captivity). The male often remains in the vicinity of the nest. The chicks are precocial and able to leave the nest within two days after hatching. They climb through the thick vegetation and are able to flutter for short distances at 3-4 days old. They follow their parents but they do not feed themselves. They are fed by the adults, giving them the food in the bill instead of regurgitation.

The Rufous-headed Chachalaca is still hunted for food. It is easy to find by hunters who can follow its calls. The species is also affected by deforestation and destruction of the habitat through logging, grazing and agriculture expansion. The historical range to the South is today fragmented, and the populations are restricted to only a few locations.
The global population is placed in the band 1,500/7,000 mature individuals, and suspected to be declining due to continued habitat destruction.
The Rufous-headed Chachalaca is currently classified as Vulnerable.