A Brightly Colored and Lively Courtship Display

Found in and around the Amazon basin in the Northern regions of South America, the male Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock never fails to impress. This fascinating bird sports an orange-colored fan-like crest with a chestnut stripe running along the edge, accentuating the flawless semicircular shape. From his crest down to his claws the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock is wrapped in shades of orange plumage. His wings, which are black with a splash of white, are covered by a layer of fluffy golden-orange feathers, giving him the appearance of being wrapped in a shawl.

The ostentatious appearance of the Cock-of-the-Rock is a perfect reflection of his extrovert character. Many birds in the dark green rain-forest of the Amazon try to blend in with their surroundings, but not so with the Cock-of-the-Rock. He goes out of his way to be seen, using his dazzling looks to expel rivals and charm admirers.

During mating season, a group of up to fifty male Cocks-of-the-Rock gather in a well-defined area in the forest in what is known as a lek. This area becomes the center stage for the annual courtship dances. It is believed that the word “lek” comes from the Swedish verb “att leka”, meaning “to play”, but although the antics of the Cock-of-the-Rock are amusing, they are far more meaningful than just a game.

Each bird marks a patch of the forest floor as his private court by clearing away any fallen leaves. He also claims any perches in the vines above his court. With so many suitors in close proximity to one another it is inevitable that some territorial border disputes may arise. These are settled with lively, but harmless, war dances consisting of vigorous head bobbing, bill snapping, feather whirring and wing flicking, punctuated by harsh squawking and dramatic leaping into the air. After a couple of minutes, when each bird feels his neighbor is suitably impressed by their show of dominance, they retreat to within their court borders.

The females of the species are not likely to win any avian beauty contest. They have small crests on their heads, short legs and large feet, with ungainly brown feathered bodies. Nevertheless, when a female glides into the branches above the lek, announcing her arrival with a high-pitched call, every male takes notice. This sets off what is considered by many to be among the most impressive courtship displays in the avian world. Each male tries to outshine the other in an explosion of movement, color and sound. Then suddenly, as if on cue, the pandemonium stops – the decisive moment has arrived.

Each male spreads his display plumage to it fullest extent as he stands completely still. The fanned-out crest hides his bill while his orange fluffy feathers obscure the shape of his body, making him look like an exotic jungle flower. The female descends to inspect three or four silent statue-like males, who keep their backs to her while at the same time tilting their heads to keep an eye on her. The female takes her time in making up her mind, finally picking at the fluffy fringes of her chosen mate’s wing feathers to indicate her choice. The chosen male springs to life and they mate on his court or nearby perch, after which the female flies off.

Once mating is over, the male Cock-of-the-Rock forgets about his mate and does not get involved in the raising of his offspring either. This may seem like an unfair division of the work load, but needing to keep a low profile to avoid predators, the female and nestlings are better off without eye-catching dad around. The female’s dull plumage is the perfect camouflage for her two spotted, brown eggs, which hatch four weeks later. Mother bird feeds her chicks with fruit and insects, or even an occasional lizard. The male Cock-of-the-Rock develops his golden-orange plumage at about two years of age – and so the next generation prepares for life as one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating birds.