7th Bird of Christmas: Laughing Falcon

1 Jan

To herald the new year, I’m choosing a forceful bird of prey, one that I’ve seen a handful of times, always at a fairly great distance, and so even with my zoom, I never got a respectable shot of my own.

The Laughing Falcon, Herpetotheres cachinnans, named for the peal of laughing notes that initiate its lengthy song, is a large white raptor with a striking dark mask and is usually seen perched on a high tree branch in an open area, scanning the ground below for its preferred prey, snakes. After nipping off the snake’s head, it sometimes swallows the entire body as if it were a string of spaghetti. This bird – known locally as the Guaco, an excellent paraphrase of its most common call – apparently has some immunity to snake venom.

Photo courtesy of John Medcraft

I heard the Guaco many times before I ever saw it, just like the ornithologist Alexander Skutch, to whom I pay tribute here with two excerpts from his fantastic chapter called ‘The Snake Eater’ in “A Naturalist in Costa Rica.”

“For many years, the Guaco was for me only a voice and the figure of a bird, for I had not yet learned much about its habits. It was as a voice that the hawk was most familiar; from one end of Central America to the other, in humid regions covered with heavy rain forest and among the cacti and thorny scrub of arid valleys, I had heard that loud, hollow, tirelessly reiterated wah-co, wah-co, wah-co floating over all the countryside from a bird unseen in the distance. Some have compared this call to the agonized wail of a human in pain, but to me it never suggested suffering. On the contrary, the sentiment that it stirred in my spirit was of deep and inscrutable mystery.”

Photo courtesy of Paulo Albuquerque Filho - Pantaneiro Mesmo

One more excerpt describes the proud duet of a pair of Laughing Falcons after a male brings the female a freshly caught snake:

“Promptly on her mate’s arrival, the female Guaco flew down beside him and took the serpent. Her first act was to bite its forward end, as though to make sure that the work of tearing off the head with its poison fangs had been thoroughly done by the male. Then she held the limp body against the perch and began the hymn of victory that celebrated her mate’s return with the proof of his successful hunting. First she uttered a peculiar how how how, which she varied with a slightly different note sounding like haw haw; but before long this changed to a loud wac wac wac, which she continued without interruption for at least five minutes. Meanwhile the male was tuning up with a slightly different sequence of notes. Soon he worked into his full-voiced wah-co, and the two shouted together at their loudest a triumphant paean that filled all the valley and echoed from the enclosing slopes, proclaiming to all hearers that still another serpent had fallen victim to the prowess of the hawks. Then, suddenly, the pair became silent.”

If you like this sort of writing, check out Skutch’s works.

Hear the call of the Guaco.

Watch a video showing the Laughing Falcon.

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