Birds of Peru

Over the past thirty years, scientists have discovered more new bird species in Peru than in the rest of the world combined. Nevertheless, while Peru, and Colombia, possess the greatest diversity of birds on the planet, as well as breathtaking landscapes and remarkable historical sites linked to the bird watching routes, this is not reflected in the number of travelers who heed the call of our country to engage in this specialized tourism sector. Regardless, the enormous potential Peru has in terms of birds will doubtlessly and inevitably be harnessed in the near future.

It is true that we are still labeled a country known for its Andean, archeological, and cultural tourism, which is all true and of which we are proud, but there are not many people who suspect that bird watchers see Peru as the most spectacular destination imaginable. There is no other country where you can see the following species in just two days: penguins, flamingos, hummingbirds, condors, and massive flocks of macaws. Since 1983, we have held an unbeatable world record for the most bird species spotted in one day: two prestigious ornithologists, Ted Parker and Scott Robinson, recorded seeing 331 bird species – without the use of motorized vehicles – in the area around the Cosha Cashu Biological Station, in the heart of the Manu National Park.

It is important to stress that South America boasts the top six nations in terms of bird species diversity in the world. Along with Peru are Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The next closest country is gigantic China, but with 500 bird species less than Peru. South America possesses more than one-third of all birds the world over, and nearly 1000 more species than in Africa, continent which is next on the list of greatest diversity.

Of all the nations on the planet, there are just two with more than 1800 species: Peru and Colombia. Nonetheless, ornithological research in Colombia has been historically superior to that in Peru, and that may be the reason why it has a twelve species advantage over our country. There are plenty of gaps in research in Peru, especially in border areas, from which, very soon, more birds will be added to the list of known species. There are at least twenty species living in bordering countries that would not be a great surprise to find in our country, as new inventories are taken. In addition, Peru has described, on average over the past few decades, one new species per year (it’s been 150 years since a new species was discovered in Europe), which is why it is highly likely that the country of the Incas, the country of Machu Picchu, the country of the Amazon River, will become the country with the greatest diversity of birds on Earth. One more thing to point out is that Peru is home to the world’s largest flying bird, the condor, and the second smallest, the Little woodstar, just one millimeter longer than the Bee hummingbird in Cuba (6.4 cm from beak to tail).

Historical airs

Even though the Spanish Conquistadors weren’t all that interested in birds during Peru’s Colonial Period, some of the historians, like Sarmiento de Gamboa, did write down the legend in which the Incan emperor, Manco Capac, carried with him an Aplomado falcon, named Inti, as a symbol of his power and divinity. What is not a legend but actual fact are the countless examples of admiration and even worship by ancient Peruvians of their most representative birds.

Take, for example, the Nazca Line figure of a hummingbird, more than 50 meters in length, etched on the desert floor. Or the large number of bird images carved in the rocks at Toro Muerto, Arequipa’s famed rock art complex. There are also some interesting controversies brewing. Experts are now saying the image ubiquitously found throughout Chavin iconography that they thought was a condor is, in fact, a harpy eagle (the largest, most powerful bird of prey in the Americas), if you look closely at the anatomy of its claws.

As reported by Walter Alva, Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Director, some birds played the role of gods in the Mochican religion, such as the owl warrior, the duck man, or the owl priestess, connecting Earth and Heaven, establishing order, and marking the rhythm of life for this civilization. Another group of birds, cormorants, pelicans, and boobies, had great influence on pre-Hispanic coastal civilizations, like the Paracas, Chimu, and Chancay. Not only were these birds used for fishing (tying strings to their legs), but their droppings (guano) that collected on the islands were a fertilizer par excellence for farmlands. Likewise, the regal Nascas used to wear clothing in which they wove feathers from macaws, cotingas, and other vividly colored birds from the remote jungle. They must have known the exact location and distribution of these species’ habitats in order to supply themselves with the raw materials for creating such lavish outfits.

Amazonian lowlands PeruPhoto credit: Green Tours

The different regions

In general terms, you could say there are four large regions in Peru running parallel to the Andes and each with its own, peculiar birdlife: the Amazonian plain, the cloud forests, the highlands, and the coast. Thomas Valqui, who earned a Master’s degree in Ecology and Biological Evolution, states that while the Amazonian plain seen in satellite images appears uniform, it is, in reality, made up of a complex structure of spaces that explain why 50% of the birds of Peru live there. “According to studies done at the Manu National Park,” Valqui says, “you can find in one single point up to 160 overlapping territories of different bird species. To give us an idea of this diversity, the number of overlapping territories in the richest North American temperate forests is, at best, 40.”

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To download a copy and guide to Birds of Peru: a gift to the world  click here.

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