Chango, the mournful singer…
By: Jorge Ventocilla
Photos by: Christina P. Riehl
…is all over our city and has taken over multiple neighborhoods, La Exposición, Bella Vista and Las Sabanas among them”. This is how Moisés Tejeira, naturalist, teacher and author of one of the first books about birds ever written in Panama, and also Gil Blas’ brother (T.N.: Gil Blas Tejeira was a highly respected Panamanian writer and chronicler) described the talingo (Quiscalus mexicanus) back in 1957.
His book, “Plumas y Cantos” (Feathers and Songs), was published by the Department of Fine Arts and Publications of the Department of Education of Panama. Although talingos are the most common birds in Panama City today, if you ask your older neighbors they will tell you that it was not like that many years ago.
They probably are “changos” or “changamés”, instead of talingos, which is a different bird. Actually, there are other three species that populate rural and semirural areas, also black in color, from the genus Crotophaga. Females are significantly smaller and mainly brown. Changmarín, the remembered Panamanian poet, used to say that birds from the genus Crotophaga are such great artists that they even lay blue eggs!
The use of the name “talingo” when talking about this bird is very common in Panama City, but it actually should be “chango”. This bird does not lay blue eggs and most people complain about this bird’s invasion to urban areas.
Isán Liao tells us that these birds were first seen in Penonomé in the early 70’s. Francisco Delgado, naturalist from Chitré, stated that talingos are very common in that ever-growing city since 1965 – however, he explains that they are not “talingos” but “changos”, and I agree just to avoid any disputes. Their range stretches from Mexico to northern Peru, but it has expanded to the north, including some areas in the U.S., no “green card” required, and Canada.
I would like to quote journalist Roxana Muñoz: “I know that many animal activists would want to slap me down, and rightfully so, for what I am about to say about these birds. I think that talingos are the biggest scoundrels…please correct me if I am wrong. I watch them flutter and stroll like they own the place. One of them could be called Mack the Knife and the other Captain Macheath…When I was a little girl, I used to think that talingos were cousins with the crows that I saw in the cartoons. As an adult, I visited the Jose Cuervo Factory in Guadalajara — I will not explain why did I end up there— and I saw an actual crow. Wow! This was the lost talingo from Jurassic Park. If Panamanian talingos were like that, they would have already kicked us out of the country. The scene would be very similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds.”
Talingos were not brought to Panamá, as sometimes it has been said, they have always been here. However, three things must be said.
Number one: stories about their origin. It has been said that they were brought by the Americans for pest control in banana plantations, also that they were imported from Cuba by former Panamanian President Arnulfo Arias for controlling a locust plague, back in the 40’s, and also that they escaped from a Colombian ship anchored in Colon, etc. – none of these stories are true: these birds have been here since the Pre-Columbian era.
Richard Cooke, archeologist for the Smithsonian Institution, has studied the Cerro Juan Díaz site in Península de Azuero for years and reports that they have found many bones corresponding to talingos in their excavations. Cerro Juan Díaz was inhabited from year 200 B.C. to year 1,400 A.D. and 40% of the 150 bones identified as the remains of Passeriformes are from talingos. It is interesting to note that these bones were found in “garbage collectors” that only had food leftovers.
Number two: today this species is a pest. They are aggressive, expansionist, omnivore and abusive. Talingos can take out, kill and even eat the eggs and squabs of almost all and every other smaller types of birds. When they are nesting, they are very jealous and protective of their territory and if any person or animal, dogs or cats, come close to their nests, they will attack with no hesitation by pecking the head of the intruder. In the afternoon, we can see them flying back to their nests, stopping at tall trees and power lines, and “painting” any individuals, parks and parking lots within their range.
Number three: attention!…we know very little about the biology of the Panamanian talingo. It is almost unbelievable that talingos are the most numerous and probably the most symbolic birds in Panama City and they have not been studied. What should we do with talingos? We can start by learning more about this bird. How does this sound for a biology graduation project?
Talingos never live in the wilderness; they usually look for places close to humans. They then breed and become a plague, just like the expansion of urban areas and the reduction of natural, green spaces. We should take into consideration that maybe the fact that there are too many talingos and that they are becoming a plague is ultimately our own fault.
English translation by: Sara I. Melo D.