Cuba has 354 recorded species of birds, of which 149 species breed on the island, and 21 are native to Cuba. Birds that have all but disappeared in other areas still find tenuous safety in protected pockets of Cuba, although some 37 species are listed as threatened due to habitat destruction, pesticide pollution, and hunting (a popular Cuban pastime).
Cuba is a major stopover for migratory waterfowl. Spoonbills and flamingos are also common on the cays and coastal lagoons. White egrets (coco blanco) are found around cane fields and water flats, and their cousins the ibis (coco negro) and blue heron (garza) can be seen picking at a buffet that extends for miles. Frigate birds, with their long scimitar wings and forked tails, hang like sinister kites in the wind. Gaviotas, or gulls, also prefer maritime regions, as does the gincho (the sea osprey).
Of terrestrial species, the wood stork can be seen in scrub areas, also favored by the cararia, a of the Senegalese snakebird. Tanagers and woodpeckers brighten the forests. Listen at night for the hoot of the barn owl and pygmy owls. The tocororo (a member of the trogon family) is the national bird, perhaps because its brilliant blue, white, and red plumage copies the colors of the national flag. It wears a scarlet sash across its breast. Listen for its tell-tale call: có-co-có-co-có-có.
There were so many parrots and macaws in the New World 500 years ago that the Americas were shown on maps as Terra Psittacorum, land of the free parrot. Even Columbus took as a pet a Cuban parrot. These are now on the road to extinction (the Cuban macaw became extinct in the 19th century). The best place to spot parrots is the Los Indios forest reserve on Isla de la Juventud, inhabited by 153 species of birds, including the Cuban grulla or sandbill crane.
Cuba also has three species of hummingbirds, whose magnificent emerald and purple liveries shimmer iridescent in the sunlight as they sip nectar from the blooms and twirl in midair, their wings a filmy blur. Hummers earned a place in the mythology of the Taíno, who called them colibrí, meaning “god bird.” They symbolized rebirth, since the Indians believed that the creature died when the weather turned dry and was born again when the rains came. They worshipped the bird as a zemi, a fetish idol.
One of Cuba’s hummingbirds is the smallest bird in the world: the bee hummingbird or zunzuncito, also called the pájaro mosca—fly bird—for its diminutive size. It weighs less than a penny.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition