The first entry of our series on Outamba-Kilimi Wildlife is the Great Blue Turaco (Corythaeola cristata). This beautiful blue bird, which is widespread throughout the tropical forests of sub-Saharan Africa, is quintessentially OKNP, and that is why it is our first entry.
Whether it is their distinctive call that sounds as your morning alarm, or how they wistfully glide in the evening sun while you cool off in the Kaba River, its only right that you get a run down on an OKNP mainstay before you come for your stay.
Blue as can be
When you get to OKNP, binoculars at the ready hoping to spot your first Great Blue Turaco, you’re going to need to know what to look for. So, first things first, let’s talk plumage.
As you may have already guessed the adult is blue! It gets its name from its turquoise-blue neck and upper breast, wings and tail. The tail is long and wide, and shows a broad, black band across near the end, which is then tipped with a final touch of blue. Most Great Blue Turacos have narrow blue tips and their outer rectrices are partially edged yellow. Notably, the wings lack the crimson primaries of other turacos.
On the turquoise-blue head, there is a brilliant blue- black crest on the forecrown and crown. The chin, throat, cheeks and outer eye-ring are greyish. The eyes are reddish-brown, surrounded by bare dark turquoise-blue eye-ring. Legs and feet are blackish-grey. The large convex bill is bright yellow with red tip.
The Turaco family are also unique in that they use copper in the pigmentation of their feathers. The copper comes from organic uroporhyrin III which is contained in their diet. This compound is ingested, stored and effectively excreted when feathers are discarded at moulting. In the Great Blue Turaco, the turacoverdin (green pigment) can be seen in lower breast and belly
A SuSu Tale
According to local legend among the SuSu of Tambakha Chiefdom, the Great Blue Turaco is a good friend to have in the forest. This bird will help weary travelers who are lost in the bush by leading them to water.
The Pan Verus Project works with SuSu conservationists to start cross-generational conversations about wildlife, and the story of the helpful turaco is one of our favourites. Alhassan Sillah (pictured) is always an animated story teller when it comes to talking about wildlife.
The Great Blue Turaco is the largest bird in the Musophagidae family. From head-to-tail, the bird measures 28 to 30 inches (70 to 76 centimeters), whereas, the other members of the family range 16 to 21 inches (40 to 53 centimeters). This means that if you fail to recognise their distinct call, you will definitely be able to catch a party as they glide from tree to tree in the evening sun.
Deft footwork for a Big Fella
Though they are weak fliers (think more Buzz Lightyear and less Swift), they can walk, run, and leap on tree twigs and branches. All Turaco species share an adaptation in toe formation in what is known as a semi-zygodactylus arrangement. In other words, they have a fourth toe that can rotate, facing either forwards or backwards. When roosting, the typical arrangement is to have three toes facing forward to increase the hold of a perch. When running along branches the toe formation will tend towards two toes forwards and two backwards, allowing them to move quickly and deftly through the trees and to climb at odd angles. Once you’ve learned to recognise their call (listen below), you’ll be quick to grab your binoculars to try catch them moving through the branches with nothing but their feet – truly a sight to behold!
Once they get back to the top of the tree, they take another leap and move on to the next one. This will likely be your first spot of a Great Blue Turaco, as a silhouette against the blush red sky come sun down.
With all that footwork, it means that, as with all members of the Musophagidae family, the Great Blue Turaco is arboreal (they live in trees). Turacos spend most of their days in tropical forest canopies or tops of trees in the grassland. All this time spent up in trees has led to other morphological adaptations; their wings are rounded, and their tails are long and broad. As OKNP is a place where Jungle meets grasslands, there is a varied habitat for the Great Blue Turaco to climb, glide, play and eat.
Great Blue Turaco belong to the “musophaga” family, which means banana and plantain eater. However, this is a slight misnomer, as they hardly ever eat bananas or plantains. In reality, the birds eat most fruit that grows wild, including the parasol and waterberry, as well as fruit grown by people.
Digestion is rapid and incomplete meaning they have to eat a lot of fruit; critically, this also means they perform an important ecological role through seed dispersal. When there is little fruit around, they eat leaves and flowers.
Interestingly, in Gabon, Great Blue Turacos have been seen regularly eating algae (tiny plants that grow in water) which is thought to provide important amounts of protein and sodium to their diet (ref1). This is a behaviour never seen in OKNP, could you be the first to spot it?
Great Blue Turacos are sociable and form parties of up to 18 birds, though usually only around 5-8. Each party secures a territory of its own, but it is typical for different parties to come together at a large fruiting tree.
The Great Blue Turaco gives loud series of deep, resonant, guttural “kok-kok-kok”. A bubbling softer trill may sometimes precede a series of “prru…prru”. These calls are usually uttered at dawn and dusk.
It is thought that they are monogamous, and their calls become much more frequent as their courtships display begin with the onset of the rainy season. Other courtship displays include mutual feeding, the raising and lowering of the crest, and exposing the head and bill patterns. They bow and flick the long tail to display the coloured pattern of the rectrices.
Though they make a lot of noise, Great Blue Turacos are known to be able to recognise respond appropriately to potential predators, competitors and noncompetitors calls. For example, they are able to recognise the call of eagles and chimpanzees and respond with increased scanning and more frequently leaving their fruit tree. However, upon hearing the call of hornbills they were able to recognise them as competitors for food.
So, now you’ve been formerly introduced to a prevalent resident of OKNP. Look out for future posts for other creatures and critters of the park!
Written by Pan Verus Project 2020 Research and Education Intern, Josh Watson