Plain Chachalaca

Ortalis vetula

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 2000
  • Markus J. Peterson

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Plain Chachalaca.
Adult Plain Chachalaca

Widely distributed along the Gulf-Caribbean slope from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Nuevo León (Mexico) south to Honduras and on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, the Plain Chachalaca typically occurs in small groups in tall, often thorny thickets, scrubland, and second-growth forest and forest edge. Unlike most temperate-zone galliforms, this species is largely arboreal. Its ability to thrive in the brushland that often results after logging distinguishes it from most other species in its family.

This nonmigratory species, similar in size and form to a female Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), is onomatopoetically named for the ear-splitting, overlapping chorus a flock makes. This loud cha-cha-lac-a call is most commonly heard during morning hours, particularly during the breeding season. Plain Chachalaca hens typically lay 3 eggs in flimsy-appear-ing nests constructed on tree limbs, forks, or crotches. If initial nests or broods are destroyed, they can renest. The precocial young are able to cling to branches as soon as they dry and can fly short distances within a week of hatching. Adults commonly live ≥5-8 years in the wild.

Although market hunters pursued Plain Chachalacas historically, most direct exploi-tation today is by subsistence hunters. This species has commonly been domesticated by capturing chicks or hatching eggs under domestic hens. Habitat destruction is the primary factor currently restricting the Plain Chachalaca. In some regions, native habitat has been replaced with vast, industrialized, agricultural landscapes, while urban sprawl and other habitat conversions have displaced the species elsewhere. Further, unregulated exploitation, particularly in sites near towns and villages, can depress abundance even where habitat is otherwise suitable.

Although anecdotal information abounds, most studies specifically addressing this species deal with morphometrics or other taxonomic issues. One comprehensive ecological study by W. Marion, however, was completed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This addressed reproductive ecology (Marion and Fleetwood 1978), growth and development (Marion 1977), longevity (Marion and Fleetwood 1974), food habits (Marion 1976b), ectoparasites (Marion and Thornton 1974), pesticide residues (Marion 1976a), census methods (Marion et al. 1981, Marion 1982), habitat requirements, local status, and changes in occupied range (Marion 1974b), and numerous other life-history traits such as movements, plumages and molting, vocalization, and behavior (Marion 1974a). Because this study was conducted on the periphery of the species' range, however, its findings may not necessarily apply elsewhere. The only other comprehensive study of this type was completed in Chiapas, Mexico (Wagner 1953).

For those interested in conserving the Plain Chachalaca, studies similar in magnitude to Marion's effort, but employing modern spatial and telemetric techniques, are critically needed in other portions of the species' range. These efforts should include spatially explicit data regarding currently occupied range, trends in abundance, and ecological factors such as habitat requirements by life-history stage, movements, dispersal, food habits, and demographics. Additionally, appropriate experimental studies would greatly increase our understanding of how the Plain Chachalaca responds to habitat modification. Such reliable knowledge, in conjunction with wisdom from local human communities, is the foundation upon which management policies that are both biologically sound and likely to be implemented can be formed.

Recommended Citation

Peterson, M. J. (2000). Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.