According to Birdlife International, approximately 5,000 bird species use tropical and subtropical rain forests as their primary habitat. This impressive collection of species exhibits wide variation in body size, shape and color, each species adapting to its unique niche. Behaviorally, rain forest species are just as diverse, and they exhibit a broad range of natural histories, courtship practices and diets.
Toucans and Hornbills
Often confused with each other, toucans (Rhamphastidae) and hornbills (Bucerotidae) both use large beaks to pick fruit, but they inhabit very different ranges and exhibit different chick-rearing behaviors. Native to South America, toucans are cavity nesters, and both sexes help care for the eggs and hatchlings. Like toucans, hornbills of Asia and Africa also nest in cavities; however, they go about it in different manners. After selecting a natural tree hollow, female hornbills seal themselves in the cavity with “cement” made of feathers, saliva and feces. A small crack allows the males to feed the females while nesting.
Parrots and Pals
Approximately 350 species make up the order Psittaciformes, which includes parrots, lovebirds, macaws, cockatoos, parakeets and others. All have zygodactylus feet, meaning that each foot has two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards. Most species subsist primarily on fruit and seeds, but some eat insects as well. The group has representatives in all major tropical rain forests, including those in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
The red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), native to South Asia, is the progenitor of domestic chickens. In the wild, these birds scavenge for seeds, grasses and insects. Because they mate with domestic chickens, the wild types are vanishing from some areas. Jungle fowls often inhabit the rain forest edge and secondary growth areas, rather than the primary forest.
Raptors of the Rain Forest
Several predator birds inhabit the rain forest, including the world’s largest eagles, Philippine eagles (Pithecophaga jefferyi). These critically endangered birds hunt prey as large as monkeys, which they sometimes capture by working in pairs. At the other end of the spectrum, tiny hawks (Accipiter superciliosus) weigh less than a quarter-pound; they prey primarily on hummingbirds. While most rain forest raptors retire to roosts at night, a number of owls emerge at dusk to fill the vacancy. Rufous owls (Ninox rufa) hunt the rain forests of New Guinea and Northern Australia. In contrast to most other owls, male rufous owls grow larger than females do.
Birds of Paradise
Approximately 42 species compose the birds of paradise, most of whom live in the rain forests of New Guinea. Many species display bizarre coloration, unique plumage and elaborate courting behaviors. The blue bird of paradise (Paradisaea rudolphi) has two long, filamentous tail feathers that fold over the bird’s body when he hangs upside down to attract females. During their mating dances, meanwhile, superb bird of paradise (Lophorina superba) males use their black contour feathers to form oval-shaped fans with bright blue patches in the center.
The third largest birds in the world, and the largest rain forest inhabitants, cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) are flightless birds, native to Northern Australia and New Guinea. Equipped with 5-inch-long claws, cassowaries defend themselves with powerful and potentially deadly leg kicks. Cassowaries use the bony crests on the tops of their heads to clear vegetation out of their way while running through the rain forest. Powerful birds, cassowaries can power through dense jungle at up to 30 miles per hour.
Little Brown Birds
Not all rain forest birds bear kaleidoscopic colors or other flamboyant features; many are clad in subtle earth tones and lead lives similar to those of familiar North American species. Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus) range into the rain forests of Peninsular Malaysia; large-billed crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) inhabit the lowland forest of Komodo Island. Meanwhile, orange-headed thrushes (Zoothera citrina), relatives of American robins (Turdus migratorius), live throughout the rain forests of Singapore.
- Birdlife International: State of the World's Birds
- Ecology Asia: True Crows
- Ecology Asia: Sparrows
- Animal Diversity Web: Casuarius Casuarius
- Animal Diversity Web: Buceros Bicornis
- Arkive: Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga Jefferyi)
- Arkive: Blue Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea Rudolphi)
- Rainforest Alliance: Keel-Billed Toucan (Ramphastos Sulfuratus)
- Owl Pages: Rufous Owl - Ninox Rufa
- Animal Diversity Web: Gallus Gallus
- American Museum of Natural History: The Genus Paradisaea: Display and Evolution
- Woodland Park Zoo: Red-Knobbed Hornbill
- Ecology Asia: Thrushes
- Arkive: Superb Bird of Paradise (Lophorina Superba)
- Bernard Van Elegem Biodiversity Photography: Why Tropical Rainforests Offer the Best Birding in the World
- National Geographic: Parrot
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Accipiter Superciliosus