A trumpeter’s tale

Pale-winged trumpeters behave like monkeys, but sound like raspberry-blowing schoolchildren.

A trumpeter's tale article spread

Pale-winged trumpeters behave like monkeys, but sound like raspberry-blowing schoolchildren. Joseph Tobias infiltrated a flock of these peculiar Peruvian natives and was swept up on a journey of jungle discovery.

Midnight in the rainforest of Manu National Park, Peru, and barely a gleam of light. I could hear mosquitoes, tree frogs and crested owls – but what I was waiting for was the night chorus of the pale-winged trumpeter. This fascinating bird exhibits extraordinary breeding, foraging and territorial behaviour – and has a controversial method of communication.
Though trumpeters are diurnal, terrestrial, group-living birds, they are impossible to find during the day. The quickest way to track them down is by listening for their serenade, heard only after dark. So we waited and finally, after two interminable nights, a vibrato call rose in the distance. Trumpeters! I sprinted through the undergrowth, desperate to pinpoint the song’s source before it ended.

Fortunately, the call lasted long enough. We found, not the trumpeters themselves, but the tree in which they were roosting. The trick now was to mark a path to this tree, then return before dawn the next day. This we did, and six trumpeters duly fluttered to the ground (good). Then they saw us and ran away fast (not so good).
Trumpeters are plump birds, much prized by hunters throughout Amazonia, and therefore understandably nervous. It took a while for us to earn their trust, after which we followed them everywhere from dawn to dusk.
This was equivalent to a daily 12-hour assault course in a sauna. The trumpeters thought nothing of flying across muddy creeks, detouring through swamps and tangled tree-falls, leaving us netted in cobwebs and besieged by ants. It was gruelling, but there was something touching about being adopted by a tribe of birds. They were gentle yet quirky creatures.
Trumpeter quirks
  • Quirk number 1: food. Fallen fruit is standard fare for trumpeters and they eat it in huge quantities. At Cocha Cashu Biological Station, you can locate large fruiting trees by listening for the shrieking monkeys that shower discarded fruit as they forage. Wait long enough, and a group of trumpeters will eventually come along to scavenge scraps. Trumpeters also like to eat snakes. They even have a special call that means: “Snake!” If they find one, the group will gather round, dragging, pecking and mauling it.
  • Quirk number 2: sex. Trumpeters are one of few animals that practise co-operative polyandry: one dominant female mates with a group of males, each of whom helps rear their offspring. Our tamest group of six trumpeters consisted of four quarrelsome males, one female and a gooseberry – either a juvenile male or a subordinate female.
  • Quirk number 3: entertainment. Research suggests that gulls and crows ‘play’ with objects, but biologists find it hard to believe that birds do anything just for fun. We often saw our trumpeters juggling with twigs, dancing about and performing somersaults. Presumably this had a role in shuffling hierarchies, but it looked suspiciously like fun to me.
  • Quirk number 4: communication. The night chorus of the pale-winged trumpeter is neither beautiful nor trumpet-like. It sounds more like cartoon characters breaking wind. Indeed, tribesmen told early explorers that these birds sang through their backsides. Even in the 20th century, naturalists asserted that the birds’ booming call was made by the anus, not the beak (in fact, trumpeters sing through a syrinx, just like other birds.)
The night chorus, we found, was one of 12 distinct calls, signifying different types of predator, varous sources of food and so on. One querulous mew meant: “I’m lost. Where are you?” This was always answered by a sharp grunt: “Over here.” This is unusual in birds, and presumably reflects the fact that a lone trumpeter is a dead trumpeter in a predator-packed forest. Add in the myriad of squeaks, chirps and hums, and this repertoire rivals that of many lower primates.
Communication is not always vocal. During social interactions, subordinates stoop beside dominant birds as they flick their wings. Such posturing is often interspersed with allopreening – one bird neatening the feathers of its neighbour, a behaviour related to hygiene, comfort, maintenance of plumage and bonds, and perhaps a dominance interaction in itself. A chin or nape is nibbled in a seemingly affectionate manner. The recipient falls into a heavy-lidded trance, which looks like rapture.
Turf war
The trumpeters’ aggression manifests itself in territorial battles between neighbouring groups. When rival factions meet in the undergrowth, confused skirmishes break out, disintegrating into beak-to-beak combat.
Trumpeters are not like ordinary birds. They live in permanent troupes and survive on a diet of fruit, topped up with snakes. They communicate through complex signals, they fight as a unit and they play. They are, in fact, honorary primates. All the more tragic then, that they are so ruthlessly hunted in forests so rashly destroyed.
Towards the end of our study, the trumpeters began to check potential nest holes every day. Mating was frequent, egg-laying imminent. It was a difficult time to leave. For one last morning we followed the birds through the dappled fabric of the forest. The trumpeters sauntered off into the shrubbery without so much as a backward glance. 

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