4 May 2015

The Elusive Barred Antshrike

A barred antshrike (left: male bird; right: the back of a chick), resting from exploring the garden (Photo: Nefertaris Daguerre).

Author: Jorge Ventocilla

The scientific name for this bird is Thamnophilus doliatus but it is better known as the barred antshrike in English or gallito” here in Panama. In my opinion, this is one of the most fascinating birds that can be found in both towns and cities in the country. If you have not had the chance yet, look for it right in your backyard, garden, or at the park. It is important to note, however, that you would more likely hear it singing than see it. Chances of seeing it will improve if you look for it at the most suitable places (near shrubs) and times (whenever it wants to be found!). 


It has the approximate size of a bluebird and usually remains hidden near or at ground level in gardens, wooded areas and abandoned lots. It is certainly a very good-looking bird: the male is barred all over with black and white and the female is brown with black and white streaks on the head. Both males and females have a crest that is raised in display when they sing. At the same time, they would move their tails up and down and keep their eyes wide open. Male and female birds usually sing as a duet. 


The barred antshrike eats insects, especially ants. To be honest, I had never seen their nests in person, even though I knew they use dried grass and sticks which they would gather and place hanging from shrubs, but my colleague Nefertaris Daguerre showed me some pictures of a nest found at her backyard in San Antonio (San Miguelito).  


Its chuckling hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu song is very loud. This bird has some shorter calls as well. If you have the chance, try to learn its song and identify it when it is in the area, even if you cannot see it. You may listen to it here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/225316. 


In El Salvador, and in other Latin American countries, it is called “Crazy face” (Cara de loco). This may sound somewhat rude, but you would probably agree to call it that way when you see this bird for the first time.


Some species in this family of birds (Formicariidae or antbirds) follow army ants, sometimes called “marabuntas”, through the forest to feed on them. The complexity of the relation between ant and antbirds has been studied for decades by biologists from the Smithsonian Institute working at Isla de Barro Colorado and the Pipeline Road (Carretera del Oleoducto) at Soberanía National Park.

A female barred antshrike on its nest (Photo: Nefertaris Daguerre). 

We do not have to travel far to know more about their nature. Professor Víctor Tejera and his students Ana Jiménez and Ricardo Pérez presented an interesting study about antbirds and their nests at the VII National Congress of Science and Technology (2001) in Panama City.


I would like to finish this newsletter remembering an individual who, as José Martí once said “was one of those people to whom nature reveals itself”. Eduardo Galeano has left this world and we no longer have someone who would sing to us the truth as only he could do it. However, his memory will live on through his written work. I wish people who know about his books would talk to the younger ones about these and enjoy his gift. 


This is a suggested translation of one of his writings. I would like to present it to you as a way of honoring his memory.


From the mole, we learned to dig tunnels.
From the beaver, we learned to construct dams.

From the bird, we learned to build houses.

From the spider, we learned to weave.
From the log going down the hill, we learned about the wheel.
From the floating log, we learned about ships.
From the wind, we learned about sailing...

But from whom did we learn, then, those bad habits?

From whom did we learn about tormenting other people and
humiliating our own world?