Puerto Rico attracts bird watchers from across the globe, who come to catch a glimpse of the fascinating species which make the island their home. There have been 349 bird species recorded throughout the archipelago, although 42 of those have been introduced by humans, and just 16 are endemic birds of Puerto Rico (native species confined to one specific area).
The development of Puerto Rico and introduction of predatory species such as the Shiny Cowbird and the mongoose has put several of these unique Puerto Rican species under threat, while other birds of Puerto Rico continue to thrive despite growing pressures on their environment.
Endemic Avian Species of Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican Parrot Amazona vittata
With its distinctive jewel-like coloring, the Puerto Rican Parrot once flocked in abundance throughout Puerto Rico. Now considered to be one of the rarest birds on earth, this magnificent avian is one of the island’s true gems.
At around 12 inches in length, with a white ring around the eye, a red patch on the forehead above a whitish-yellow beak and tone-toned blue-green plumage, the Puerto Rican Parrot has a stocky body shape, which sometimes leads to its being confused with the more common Hispanolan Parrot.
These parrots are most frequently seen during the half hour before sunrise, and have a bugling call which has led locals to name them “cotorra” or “iguaca”. With flight speeds reaching 19km per hour, these birds are more often heard than seen. Feeding on fruits from the Sierra Palm, Cupeillo and Tabonuco trees, this attractive species mates for life and moves in pairs. Juvenile birds are sometimes seen with their parents, remaining with them until the following breeding season, which occurs before the spring wet season.
Until the 18/19th Century, Puerto Rican Parrots flourished in the naturally lush forests of Puerto Rico, but land development as a solution to the growing needs of human inhabitants meant that much of their habitat was lost. Now, these parrots can only be found in one 160 square kilometer area of mid-elevation forest, with estimated numbers of wild individuals totaling around 13.
Alongside the loss of habitat, Puerto Rican Parrots face threats from birds of prey such as the peregrine falcon, and introduced species such as black rats and bot fly. Hurricanes also pose a risk for this fragile species, with numbers decimated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. With the risk of extinction hovering over these unique birds, conservation programs are now in place to help build up the population, with several successful release operations taking place.
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus vieilloti
Discovered by, and named for, the French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo is one of four Lizard Cuckoo species, all of which are unique to the Caribbean. A fairly large bird, at between 16 – 19 inches in length, the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo has a bright red ring around the eye and a long, gently curving beak. Its plumage is grey at the breast, with a red brown belly and two white spots on the tail. Juvenile birds can be identified by a pale reddish color on the breast.
Locals believe that the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo predicts rain, and call it the Pajaro de Agua, or bird of the water. The harsh repetitive calls is often heard in dense forest below 900m and these stealthy hunters tend to be solitary. Slow-moving and watchful, Lizard Cuckoos feed by stalking the undergrowth, eating lizards, spiders and beetles.
Puerto Rican Screech-Owl Otus nupides
The silently flying Puerto Rican Screech-Owl is a nocturnal species which lives in forests and wooded areas. It was first described in 1800 by French ornithologist Francois Marie Daudin, with its comical eyebrow-like tufts of white, brown body and unfeathered legs and feet. Males tend to be smaller, at an average of 137g, than females which average a body weight of 143g.
Puerto Rican Screech-Owls breed between April and June, laying up to two eggs in hollow tree trunk nests. They feed mainly on small birds, lizards and rodents, ejecting pellets of indigestible bones, hunting using their binocular vision, which means they see in three dimensions and can judge distance as well as a human can.
The call of these owls is usually heard in the early mornings and has a coo-coo sound.
Puerto Rican Nightjar Camprimulgus noctitherus
Highly territorial and very rare, the Puerto Rican Nightjar was believed to be extinct until 1961. The small bird measures 8.5 inches in length and has a mottled brown and black coloring which acts as a camouflage. Males can be identified by a white throat marking, which is buff in females. These birds are found in dry semi-deciduous forests which has deep leaf litter for them to hide in.
Secretive in native, the Puerto Rican Nightjar calls with a whistling-whip tone and feeds at night. A series of bristles around these birds beaks help them to localize the night flying insects which are their favoured prey.They hunt by flying through insect swarms with an open beak, then return to a favoured perch to eat.
During breeding season, these Nightjars lay one to two eggs, but do not build a nest. They protect the eggs using distraction displays and when threatened by other members of their species may compete in singing matches.
The Puerto Rican Nightjars are highly threatened with less than an estimated 2,000 individuals in existence. Among the dangers they face are introduced species such as Mongoose, and human constructions, particularly wind-farms which have developed in their flight-paths.
Green Mango Anthracothorax viridis
The exotically named Green Mango is one of several birds of Puerto Rico which fit into the hummingbird family. Tiny, at just 4.5 inches in length, both the male and female have bright green plumage with a vibrant blue tail and curved black beak, which is adapted to allow them to feed from flowers. A particular favourite of this species is Helicona, commonly known as Lobster Claw or False Bird of Paradise. In addition to eating nectar, Green Mangos are known to feed on insects and spiders.
Green Mango Hummingbirds live in mountain forests and coffee plantations and build cup-shaped nests using plant fibers with a lichen lining. The female lays one or two white eggs, and while she sits the male guards the nest.
Puerto Rican Emerald Chlorostilbon maugaeus
The Puerto Rican Emerald is a hummingbird which measures just 3.5 – 4 inches and lives in forests mangrove, coffee plantations and gardens. Highly territorial, these fierce little birds engage in defensive attacks in flight, swooping and swirling to distract potential enemies.
As their name suggests the Puerto Rican Emerald is a rich green color, with a black tail. Males have a pink marking at the beak, while females bear white plumage under their body and their forked tails are edged in white. Breeding throughout the year, Puerto Rican Emeralds build a cup shaped nest and lay two eggs. Males of the species have been found to prefer the nectar of red flowers as a staple food-source, while females prefer spiders and insects.
Puerto Rican Tody Todus mexicanus
The Puerto Rican Tody is one of the endemic species from this area which is not under threat of extinction, although they only live in a limited area of forest. Although they may appear similar to hummingbirds, Puerto Rican Todys are considered part of the kingfisher family and are one of only five Tody species in the world.
Often seen travelling in pairs, these cheerful and highly active birds have a beeping call, and are called San Pedrito by locals, which means Little Saint Peter. Easily identifiable, with their bold red throat marking, emerald upper body, yellow side patch, white belly and long red beak. Male Puerto Rican Todys have grey eyes, while females have white eyes.
Puerto Rican Todys feed on vast amounts of insects, which they catch by perching on branches and using rapid head movements to scan the area. Todys never nest in trees, preferring burrows or hills sides. They lay between one and four eggs between February and June. Interestingly, the Puerto Rican Tody has a lower body temperature than other birds at 36.7°C and uses less energy. They can lower their body temperature by as much as 14% and still remain active, which may explain why they are such a successful species.
Puerto Rican Woodpecker Melanerpes portocensis
Similar in appearance to North American Woodpeckers, the Puerto Rican Woodpecker is a medium sized bird, with a black upper body, red throat and chest markings, white forehead and buff under-body plumage. Their sturdy beaks are used to forage for food under tree back, drilling holes and creating cavities which are used as nest holes by many other endemic Puerto Rican Species.
The Puerto Rican Woodpecker is the only member of the woodpecker which inhabits the island, and is commonly seen in forests, gardens and mangroves. In addition to feeding on insects, these woodpeckers are also known to enjoy fruit. During the breeding season, courtship displays may be seen – the male puffs up the feathers around its crown and nape, and spreads its tail, making side to side movements, as if to hypnotise the female. Somewhat unusually, both the male and female care for Puerto Rican Woodpecker hatchlings.
Puerto Rican Flycatcher Myiarchus antillarum
With a crested head, brown upper body and lower under-body plumage and small pointed beak, the Puerto Rican Flycatcher is one of the less dramatic birds of Puerto Rico. Very little is known about the birds habits, although its chattering call is distinctive and sometimes an audible beak “clack” can be heard during foraging.
Living in wooded areas and sometimes nesting in holes made by the Puerto Rican Woodpecker, local folklore tells that these birds are a bringer of news – be it good or bad.
Feeding on insects and small lizards, the Puerto Rican Flycatcher measures around 8 inches in length.
Puerto Rican Vireo Vireo latimeri
Puerto Rico locals call the Vireo “bien-te-veo” which translates as see you well. This is the Vireo’s call, which can be heard ringing out all day, but more frequenrtly in the mornings. At just five inches, the Vireo has attractive dual colouring of grey and pale yellow and small, pointed beak.
Living in mountain forests, the Vireos build a cup shaped nest on a tree branch, laying up to three eggs.They feed mainly on insects plucked from foliage and are thought to be a long-living species, the oldest recorded individual being 13 years and 2 months of age. Vireo’s suffer from brood parasitism by other birds, although the population is currently stable and not endangered.
Adelaide’s Warbler Dendroica adelaidae
Fast moving, with estimated speeds of up to 0.07m a second, the Adelaide’s Warbler is a song bird with an attractive trilling note and habit of flying in mixed flocks with other species. At around 5 inches in length, yellow breast and cheek markings and a grey upper body make the Adelaide’s Warbler easy to identify, with males having slightly brighter colouring than females.
Found most commonly in dry, coastal scrub, these warblers feed on insects, and their local name means butterfly eater.
Adelaide’s Warbler are known to be highly territorial, taking a wings down stance when challenged by other birds. They are surprisingly tolerant of humans and may even fly close to see who is in their territory. These birds lay their nest between 3 – 7m from the ground and lay two to four white eggs each year.
Elfin Woods Warbler Dendroica Angelae
The Elfin Woods Warbler was first described in 1968 and its Latin name commemorates one of its discoverers. Angela Kepler was studying the Puerto Rican Tody and Puerto Rican Parrot when she identified the warbler, which was the first new species to be described in the Caribbean since 1927.
Living in dense, damp forests, the Elfin Woods Warbler is around 5 inches long ,with an incomplete white ring around the eye, white crown and white patches on the neck. Immature birds are black turning greenish as they reach maturity.
These birds are not common, and threats such as the mongoose and deforestation put them at risk. Occasionally seen in mixed species flocks, the Warbler hunts for its prey of insects by hovering and diving. Their metallic call is not often heard, but highly recognisable once identified.
Puerto Rican Spindalis Nesospingus speculiferus
Suggested as a national bird for Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Spindalis lives in forested mountain habits and travels in small groups or pairs. Playing a vital part in the islands ecology, the Spindalis’ habits are vital for seed dispersal and plant life. Called the Reina Mora by locals, Spindalis are around 7-8 inches in length with a green back, orange markings on the neck and chest and a black head with two white stripes, with males showing brighter plumage than females.
The species was discovered in 1868 by Juan Gundlanch, a Cuban naturalist, and builds cup shaped nests where the female lays two blue eggs. These birds have been seen to perform a mobbing behaviour when young were threatened by a snake – a group of birds attacking en-mass to drive the predator away.
Puerto Rican Tanager Nesospingus speculiferus
One of the more widespread endemic birds of Puerto Rico is the Puerto Rican Tanager. Often heard when roosting in large noisy flocks at dusk, these birds live in undisturbed mountainous areas and second growth. Flying in small flocks or pairs, the Puerto Rican Tanager is the only member of its genus and has a high pitched call (12khz) which some humans are unable to hear.
The Puerto Rico Tanager is around 7-8 inches in length with an brownish coloured back, white underparts, a black cap and pointed beak. Feeding mainly on palm fruits and ants, this small bird weighs an average of 36g. It is believed that they use the formic acid produced by the ants they capture, as a type of grooming product to protect from mites and other infestations on their skin. The Puerto Rican Tanager breeds between January and August and lays its cream coloured eggs in a cup-shaped nest, no more than 9m from the ground.
Puerto Rican Bullfinch Loxigilla portoricensis
Rarely seen by bird-watchers, despite being fairly common, the Puerto Rican Bullfinch has a whistling-whip call which is followed by a buzzing tone. Eating a mixture of seeds, fruit, insects and flowers, these birds are methodical foragers, hunting carefully through forests and thickets to find food.
Measuring an average of 6.5 – 7.5 inches, the male has a bright red throat and black body, while the female has much duller plumage. Puerto Rican Bullfinches build cup shaped nests, sometimes with a roof, where the female lays three blue-green speckled eggs. Sometimes the previous years fledglings stay with the parents till the following hatch, even helping them to build nests.
Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird Agelaius xanthmus
Large and colourful, the Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird displays gleaming black plumage with a yellow shoulder marking in both males and females. Large, at 8-9 inches in length, the Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird is found in mangrove and scrub.
Placed on the Critically Endangered List in 1976, the Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird faces extinction due to parasitism by the Shiny Cowbird and loss of habitat. Artificial nesting programmes have been put into place to bring these birds back from the brink of extinction and an estimated 1,250 individuals were counted in 1998.
These birds lay up to three clutches of four eggs between March and September, nesting in small colonies on the coast. They feed on insects, moths, crickets, seeds and nectar, and communicate in whistles, squawks and rasps. They are mostly seen in the evenings when going to roost.