With approximately 850 recorded bird species, the country boasts one-tenth of the world’s total. More than 630 are resident species; the others are travelers who fly in for the winter. Birds that have all but disappeared in other areas still find tenuous safety in protected lands in Costa Rica, though many species face extinction from deforestation.
It may surprise you to learn that in a land with so many exotic species the national bird is the relatively drab yiquirro, or clay-colored robin, a brown-and-buff bird with brick-red eyes. You may hear the male singing during the March–May breeding season when, according to campesino folklore, he is “calling the rains.”
The four major “avifaunal zones” roughly correspond to the major geographic subdivisions of the country: the northern Pacific lowlands, the southern Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands, and the interior highlands. Guanacaste’s dry habitats (northern Pacific lowlands) share relatively few species with other parts of the country. This is a superlative place, however, for waterfowl: the estuaries, swamps, and lagoons that make up the Tempisque Basin support the richest freshwater avifauna in all Central America, and Palo Verde National Park , at the mouth of the Tempisque, is a bird-watcher’s mecca. The southern Pacific lowland region is home to many South American neotropical species, such as jacamars, antbirds, and, of course, parrots.
Depending on season, location, and luck, you can expect to see many dozens of species on any one day. Many tour companies offer guided bird-study tours, and the country is well set up with lodges that specialize in bird-watching programs. But the deep heart of the jungle is not the best place to look for birds: you cannot see well amid the complex, disorganized patterns cast by shadow and light. For best results, find a large clearing on the fringe of the forest, or a watercourse where birds are sure to be found in abundance.
The anhinga (pato aguja to locals) and its close cousin, the olivaceous cormorant (cormorán), are sleek, long-necked, stump-tailed waterbirds with the pointy profile of a Concorde. Though they dive for fish in the lagoons and rivers of the lowlands and are superb swimmers, their feathers lack the waterproof oils of other birds. You can thus often see them after a dousing, perched on a branch, sunning themselves in a vertical position with widespread wings. These birds have kinked necks because they spear fish using the kink as a trigger.
The bright-billed toucans—“flying bananas”—are a particular delight to watch as they pick fruit with their long beaks, throw it in the air, and catch it at the back of their throats. Costa Rica’s six toucan species are among the most flamboyant of all Central American birds.
The gregarious keel-billed toucan (tucán pico iris) inhabits lowland and mid-elevation forests throughout the country except the Pacific southwest. This colorful stunner has a jet-black body, blue feet, a bright yellow chest and face, beady black eyes ringed by green feathers, and a rainbow-hued beak tipped by scarlet. Its similarly colored cousin, Swainson’s or chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ticos call it dios tedé, for the onomatopoeic sound it makes), is the largest of the group—it grows to 60 centimeters long and has a two-tone yellow-and-brown beak. It is found in moist forests below 610 meters, notably along the coastal zones, including the Pacific southwest.
There are also two species of toucanets, smaller cousins of the toucan: the green emerald toucanet, a highland bird with a red tail; and the black yellow-eared toucanet, found in the Caribbean lowlands.
Aracaris (tucancillos) are smaller and sleeker relatives, with more slender beaks. Both the collared aracari (a Caribbean bird) and fiery-billed aracari (its southern Pacific cousin) boast olive-black bodies, faces, and chests, with a dark band across their rust-yellow underbellies. The former has a two-tone yellow-and-black beak; the latter’s beak is black and fiery orange.
Costa Rica has some 50 raptor species: birds that hunt down live prey and seize it with their talons. The various species have evolved adaptations to specific habitats. For example, the large common black hawk (gavilán cangrejero, or “crab-hunting hawk” to Ticos) snacks on crabs and other marine morsels. And the osprey is known as águila pescadora (fishing eagle) locally for scooping fish while on the wing.
That lunatic laughter that goes on compulsively at dusk in lowland jungles is the laughing falcon (guaco).
The endangered neotropical harpy eagle (águila arpía), at one meter long the largest of all eagles, is renowned for twisting and diving through the treetops in pursuit of sloths and monkeys. Sightings in Costa Rica—where in recent years it has been relegated to the Osa Peninsula and more remote ranges of the Talamancas—are extremely rare.
Costa Rica’s two species of caracaras—the crested caracara and yellow-headed caracara—are close cousins to the eagles, though like vultures they also eat carrion. You’ll often see these large, fearsomely beaked, goose-stepping, long-legged birds picking at roadkill.
Costa Rica also has eight species of hawks, which are physically robust, with broad wings and short, wide tails, compared to the sleeker kites, which have longer, slender tails and wings. The most ubiquitous hawk is the small gray-brown roadside hawk (gavilán chapulinero).
Some 25 or so stilt-legged, long-necked wading birds are found in Costa Rica. Most common is the snowy white cattle egret. It favors cattle pastures and can often be seen hitching a ride on the back of cattle, which are happy to have it pick off fleas and ticks. The males have head plumes, which, along with the back and chest, turn tawny in breeding season. The species is easily mistaken for the snowy egret, a larger though more slender bird wearing “golden slippers” (yellow feet) on its black legs. Largest of the white egrets is the great egret, which grows to one meter tall.
There are three species of brown herons—called “tiger herons” (garza tigre)—in Costa Rica, most notably the bare-throated tiger heron. The little blue heron, commonly seen foraging alongside lowland watercourses, is a handsome blue-gray with purplish head plumage (the female is white, with wings tipped in gray). The northern lowlands are also a good place to spot the relatively small green-backed heron. The dun-colored yellow-crowned night heron is diurnal, not nocturnal as its name suggests. It is unmistakable, with its black-and-white head crowned with a swept-back yellow plume. Another instantly identifiable bird is the stocky gray boat-billed heron, named for the keel shape of its abnormally wide, thick bill.
Storks—notable for their fearsomely heavy, slightly upturned bills—also inhabit the lowland wetlands, notably in Caño Negro and Palo Verde National Parks, where the endangered jabiru can be seen. This massive bird (it grows to over one meter tall) wears snow-bright plumage, with a charcoal head, and a red scarf around its neck. Its relative, the wood stork, is also white, but with black flight feathers and featherless black head.
The roseate spoonbill (espátula rosada) is the most dramatic of the waders, thanks to its shocking-pink plumage and spatulate bill. Costa Rica also has three species of ibis.
Of all the exotically named bird species in Costa Rica, the hummingbirds beat all contenders. Their names are poetry: the green-crowned brilliant, purple-throated mountain-gem, Buffon’s plummeteer, and the bold and strikingly beautiful fiery-throated hummingbird. More than 300 species of New World hummingbirds constitute the family Trochilidae (Costa Rica has 51). The fiery-throated hummingbird is a glossy green, shimmering iridescent at close range, with dark blue tail, violet-blue chest, glittering coppery orange throat, and a brilliant blue crown set off by velvety black on the sides and back of the head. Some males take their exotic plumage one step further and are bedecked with long streamer tails and iridescent mustaches, beards, and visors.
These tiny high-speed machines are named because of the hum made by the beat of their wings. At up to 100 beats per second, the hummingbirds’ wings move so rapidly that the naked eye cannot detect them. They are often seen hovering at flowers, from which they extract nectar (and often insects) with their long, hollow, and extensile tongues forked at the tip. Alone among birds, they can generate power on both the forward and backward wing strokes, a distinction that allows them to also fly backward. Nests are often no larger than a thimble and eggs no larger than coffee beans.
The motmot is a sickle-billed bird that makes its home in a hole in the ground. Motmots have a pendulous twin-feathered tail with the barbs missing three-quarters of the way down, leaving two bare feather shafts with disc-shaped tips. (According to Bribrí legend, the god Sibo asked all the creatures to help him make the world. They all chipped in gladly except the motmot, who hid in a hole. Unfortunately, the bird left his tail hanging out. When the other birds saw this they picked the feathers from the motmot’s tail but left the feathers at the tip. When the world was complete, Sibo gave all the tired animals a rest. Soon the motmot appeared and began boasting about how hard he had labored. But the lazy bird’s tail gave the game away, so Sibo, who guessed what had happened, admonished the motmot and banished him to living in a hole in the ground.)
Of nine species of motmot in tropical America, six live in Costa Rica. You’ll find them from humid coastal southwest plains to the cool highland zone and dry Guanacaste region. Two commonly seen species are the blue-crowned motmot and turquoise-bowed motmot.
Costa Rica’s 17 species of owls are nocturnal hunters, more often heard than seen. An exception is the large dark-brown spectacled owl (bujo de anteojos), which also hunts by day.
If ever there were an avian symbol of the neotropics, it must be the parrot. This family of birds is marked by savvy intelligence, an ability to mimic the human voice, and uniformly short, hooked bills hinged to provide the immense power required for cracking seeds and nuts. Costa Rica claims 16 of the world’s 330 or so species, including six species of parakeets and two species of macaws, the giants of the parrot kingdom. The parrots are predominantly green, with short, truncated tails (parakeets and macaws, however, have long tails), and varying degrees of colored markings. All are voluble, screeching raucously as they barrel overhead.
Although macaw is the common name for any of 15 species of these large, long-tailed birds found throughout Central and South America, only two species inhabit Costa Rica: the scarlet macaw (lapa roja) and the great green or Buffon’s macaw (lapa verde). Both bird populations are losing their homes to deforestation and poaching.
The largest of the neotropical parrots, macaws have harsh, raucous voices that are filled with authority. They are gregarious and rarely seen alone. They are usually paired male and female—they’re monogamous for long periods; some pairs for life—often sitting side by side, grooming and preening each other, and conversing in rasping loving tones, or flying two by two.
Macaws usually nest in softwood trees, where termites have hollowed out holes. They rarely eat fruit, but prefer seeds and nuts, which they extract with a hooked nutcracker of such strength that it can split the Brazil nut—or a human finger.
The scarlet macaw can grow to 85 centimeters in length. It wears a dazzling, rainbow- colored jacket of bright yellow and blue, green, or scarlet. Though the scarlet macaw ranges from Mexico to central South America and was once abundant on both coasts of Costa Rica, today it is found only in a few parks on the Pacific shore, and rarely on the Caribbean side. Until recently only three wild populations of scarlet macaws in Central America were thought to have a long-term chance of survival—at Carara National Park  and Corcovado National Park  in Costa Rica, and Coiba Island  in Panamá. The bird can also be seen with regularity at Palo Verde National Park  and more rarely at Manuel Antonio National Park  and Santa Rosa National Park , though these populations were below the minimum critical size. An estimated 400 scarlets live at Carara and as many as 1,000 at Corcovado. Following a decade of reintroduction of human-bred scarlet macaws to the wild, populations are rebounding throughout their range.
The Buffon’s macaw, or great green macaw, is slightly larger than the scarlet. It has a body of multiple shades of green (slightly irridescent around the neck), a pinkish-white face (that flushes when the bird is excited), teal-blue wingtips, and a red tail. About 50 breeding pairs of Buffon’s macaw are thought to exist in the wild, exclusively in the Caribbean and northern lowlands. The bird relies on the almendro tree—a heavily logged species—for nest sites, and calls have gone out for a ban on logging almendros. Its population is increasing slowly thanks to environmental efforts, including the release of macaws bred by The Ara Project .
Costa Rica has almost 100 species of seabirds and shorebirds, including a wide variety of gulls. Many are migratory visitors, more abundant in winter months.
The large, pouch-billed brown pelican (pelicano) can be seen up and down the Pacific coast (and, in lesser numbers, on the Caribbean). Boobies inhabit several islands off Nicoya, as do the beautiful red-billed, fork-tailed royal tern, and a variety of other seabirds. Oystercatchers and sandpipers (often seen in vast flocks), and other shoreline waders frequent the coastal margins.
Frigate birds, with their long scimitar wings and forked tails, hang like sinister kites in the wind all along the Costa Rican coast.
Despite the sinister look imparted by its long hooked beak, the frigate bird is quite beautiful. The adult male is all black with a lustrous faint purplish-green sheen on its back (especially during the courtship season). The female, the much larger of the two, is easily distinguished by the white feathers that extend up her abdomen and breast, and the ring of blue around her eyes.
Superb stunt flyers, frigate birds often bully other birds on the wing, pulling at the tails of their victims until the latter release or regurgitate a freshly caught meal (bird-watchers have a name for such thievery: kleptoparasitism). Frigate birds also catch much of their food themselves. You may see them skimming the water and snapping up squid, flying fish, and other morsels off the water’s surface. (They must keep themselves dry, as they have only a small preen gland, insufficient to oil their feathers; if they get too wet they become waterlogged and drown.)
Costa Rica boasts 50 species of tanagers—small, exorbitantly colored birds that favor dark tropical forests. The tanagers’ short stubby wings enable them to swerve and dodge through the undergrowth as they chase after insects.
Among the most astonishing is the summer tanager, flame-red from tip to tail. The black male scarlet-rumped tanager also has a startlingly flame-red rump (his mate is orange and olive-gray). The exotically plumed blue-gray tanager is as variegated in turquoise and teal as a Bahamian sea, while the silver-throated tanager is lemon yellow.
Tanagers belong to the order Passerines—“perching birds”—that includes about half of all Costa Rica’s bird species. It is a taxonomically challenging group, with members characterized by certain anatomical features: notably, three toes pointing forward and a longer toe pointing back. Sparrows, robins, and finches are Passerines, as are antbirds (30 species), blackbirds (20 species), flycatchers (78 species), warblers (52 species), and wrens (22 species).
Costa Rica has 10 of the 40 species of trogons: brightly colored, long-tailed, short-beaked, pigeon-sized, forest-dwelling tropical birds. Most trogons combine bodies of two primary colors—red and blue, blue and yellow, or green and some other color—with a black-and-white striped tail. The orange-bellied trogon, for example, is green, with a bright orange belly beneath a sash of white.
Many bird-watchers travel to Costa Rica simply to catch sight of the quetzal, or resplendent trogon. What this bird lacks in physical stature it makes up for in audacious plumage: vivid, shimmering green that ignites in the sunshine, flashing emerald to golden and back to iridescent green. The male sports a fuzzy punk hairdo, a scintillating crimson belly, and two brilliant green tail plumes up to 60 centimeters long, sinuous as feather boas. The female lacks the elaborate plumage.
Early Maya and Aztecs worshiped a god called Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent that bestowed corn on humans, and depicted him with a headdress of quetzal feathers. The bird’s name is derived from quetzalli, an Aztec word meaning “precious” or “beautiful.” The Maya considered the male’s iridescent green tail feathers worth more than gold. Quetzal plumes and jade, which were traded throughout Mesoamerica, were the Mayas’ most precious objects. It became a symbol of authority vested in a theocratic elite, much as only Roman nobility was allowed to wear purple silks. Its beauty was so fabled and the bird so elusive and shy that early European naturalists believed the quetzal was a fabrication of Central American natives.
The male proclaims its territory each dawn through midmorning and again at dusk with a telltale melodious whistle—a hollow, high-pitched call of two notes, one ascending steeply, the other descending—repeated every 8–10 minutes. Narcissistic males show off their tail plumes in undulating flight, with spiraling skyward flights presaging a plummeting dive with their tail feathers rippling behind, all part of the courtship ritual.
Nest holes (often hollowed out by woodpeckers) are generally about 10 meters from the ground. By day, the male incubates the eggs while his tail feathers (0.6 m) hang out of the nest. At night, the female takes over.
The movement of quetzals follows the seasonal fruiting of different laurel species. Everywhere throughout its 1,600-kilometer range (from southern Mexico to western Panamá), the quetzal is endangered by loss of its cloud-forest habitat.
Costa Rica lies directly beneath a migratory corridor between North and South America, and in the northern lowland wetlands, the air is always full of blue-winged teals, shoveler ducks, and other waterfowl settling and taking off. Most duck species are winter migrants from North America. Neotropical species include black-bellied whistling ducks and Muscovy ducks.
The wetlands are also inhabited by 18 species of the order Gruiformes: rails, bitterns, and their relatives, with their large, wide-splayed feet good for wading and running across lily- and grass-choked watercourses. Many are brightly colored, including the purple gallinule, liveried in vivid violet and green, with a yellow-tipped red bill. The black-and-brown, yellow-beaked northern jacana is easy to see, especially in the canals of Tortuguero, hopping about atop water lilies thanks to its long, slender toes—hence its nickname, the “lily-trotter.” The female jacana is promiscuous, mating with many males, who take on the task of nest-building and brooding eggs that may have been fertilized by a rival. Tortuguero is also a good place to spot the sungrebe, a furtive brown waterbird with black-and-white striped neck and head and red beak. Males carry young chicks in a fold of skin under their wings.
Costa Rica has four species of vultures (zopilotes). You can’t help but be unnerved at the first sight of scrawny black vultures swirling overhead on the thermals as if waiting for your car to break down. They look quite ominous in their undertaker’s plumage, with bald heads and hunched shoulders.
The red-headed turkey vulture is common in all parts of Costa Rica below 2,000 meters, noticeably so in moister coastal areas where it hops about on the streets of forlorn towns such as Golfito. The stockier black vulture has a black head. Both are otherwise charcoal colored.
Count yourself lucky to spot the rarer lesser yellow-headed vulture, with its namesake yellow head; or the mighty king vulture, which wears a handsome white coat with black wing feathers and tail, and a wattled head variegated in vermilion and yellow.
The three-wattled bellbird, which inhabits the cloud forests, is rarely spotted in the mist-shrouded treetops, though the male’s eerie call, like a hammer clanging on an anvil, haunts the forest as long as the sun is up. It is named for the strange wattles that dangle from its bill. Its population is declining alarmingly.
In the moist Caribbean lowlands (and occasionally elsewhere) you may spot the telltale pendulous woven nests—often one meter long—of Montezuma oropendolas, a large bronze-colored bird with a black neck, head, and belly, a blue-and-orange bill, and bright yellow outer tail feathers. The birds nest in colonies. The chestnut-headed oropendola is less commonly seen.
The great curassow, growing as tall as one meter, is almost too big for flight and tends to run through the undergrowth if disturbed. You’re most likely to see this endangered bird in Corcovado or Santa Rosa National Parks.
All four New World species of kingfishers inhabit Costa Rica: the large red-breasted; the slate-blue ringed kingfisher, which can grow to 40 centimeters; its smaller cousin, the belted kingfisher; and the Amazon kingfisher and smaller green kingfisher, both green with white and red underparts.
The common pauraque (or cuyeo) is a member of the nightjar family—nocturnal birds that in flight are easily mistaken for bats. They like to sit on the dusty roads at night, where they are well camouflaged, causing you a heck of a scare as they lift off.
Another neotropical nightjar is the odd-looking great potoo (nictibio grande), a superbly camouflaged bird that perches upright on tree stumps and holds its head haughtily aloft. Its squat cousin the common potoo, resembles an owl.