the little farter

March 20, 2006

in Birds,Natural history,Travel

There are only two families of birds found just in the West Indies.  One is the Dulidae, consisting of one species, the Palmchat (Dulus dominicus) of Hispanolia.  The other is the Todidae, or todies, of which there are five species.

Todies are related to kingfishers and motmots, two of my favorite groups of birds, but are fetchingly unique. Todies are thought to have colonized the West Indies from the Yucatan of Mexico via Cuba.  The Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor), then, is the “original” tody species, and the most colorful.  Not clearly visible in this photo are the shocking pink flanks.

Todies are rotund, kinglet-sized birds with big heads, short tails, and long flat bills.  They inhabit various forest types with fairly dense structure, since they typically make only short flights, engaging in a characteristic foraging maneuver known as the “underleaf sally.” Todies sit on a twig, bill uplifted, scanning nearby foliage.  Then they dart out and scoop an insect off the underside of a leaf.

This behavior is not too unlike the conduct of motmots. But where motmots might be considered deliberate or even sluggish, todies appear eager and dynamic, “tiny verdigris busybodies” in the words of Thomas Barbour, who wrote Cuban Ornithology in 1943.  Todies are remarkably vocal, emitting various beeps, buzzes, and ticks (you can view video clips here).  They can also make a “wing-rattling” sound with their wings.

Yes, I’m getting to the farting part.

Todies have colorful nicknames on the islands where they are found.  Puerto Rico’s tody sometimes goes by Medio Peso, or half dollar. The Handbook of the Birds of the World goes on to explain,

The Cuban Tody is often known as the Pedorrera, a rather malodorous term referring to the noise made when breaking wind.

Cuban Todies are common, and in my visits to Cuba I have seen — and heard — many.  I assumed  Pedorrera, which means “little farter,” referred perhaps to the rapid ticking call (although I’m not sure what ailment would account for such sharp, staccato flatulence), or the wing-rattling, which is a strong whirring sound that can sometimes be heard as the bird takes off.  Either way, Cubans must have good imaginations, I thought, if they were reminded of passing gas by these noises.

My moment of enlightenment dawned one day while I was standing almost directly underneath a Cuban Tody as it scanned for lunch. No matter how many todies you see, you are always tempted to stop and watch these sprites, especially when one is right out in the open.  It turned a bright eye on a bug, and zipped out, doing the old “underleaf sally,” returning almost instantaneously to the same perch.  To my utter amazement (and, I’ll admit, delight), the move was accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a nice, ripe fart!

The tody ignored the group just below it, even as we exchanged high fives at having discovered the origin of the nickname. Out shot the tody from the twig once again, producing another sound worthy of the finest whoopee cushion.  The hilarity exhibited by the listeners proved too much for the bird, who moved into the forest. I’ve since heard other little farters earning their name, and it’s always a highlight. You have to be very close, and it seems the bird must execute a particularly quick, sharp move for the  correct sound to materialize.  There are many things to like about this cute and charismatic little bird, I almost hate to confess that this sound tops my list.

Famed avian ecologist Alexander Wetmore wrote in 1927,

If there be gnomes and elves in our world of birds, among them are the tiny todies, whose long, spadelike bills, light eyes, brilliant plumage and peculiar mannerisms make them the dwarfs and hobgoblins of the West Indian forests… their acquaintance is one of the greatest pleasures that comes to a foreign ornithologist traveling in their haunts.

This foreign ornithologist concurs completely.


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