Know your coffee birds: Horned Guan

by on January 10, 2011

The Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) holds a near-mythical status for birders. It is large –almost the size of a turkey — and bizzare-looking, with a red horn projecting from its head, the exact function of which is unknown. It is rare, a critically endangered species with a population of  fewer than 2000 individuals. It is found in the cloud forests from 1200 to 3500 meters (primarily 2000 to 3000 m) in the Sierra Made de Chiapas of Mexico and in west-central Guatemala. Even a guided journey to accessible areas is described as “grueling,” “brutal,” and “a death march.” Thus, the Horned Guan is one of the most sought-after birds in the world: even Sports Illustrated ran an article about searching for the guan; the group included George Plimpton.

The Horned Guan is the sole member of its genus, and a member of the cracid family. This is the same family as the Jacu I wrote about in a previous post, the bird that eats and craps out coffee in Brazil and the source of “Jacu coffee.” Unlike other cracids, though, Horned Guans spend most of their time in trees rather than on the ground. The Horned Guan’s diet is comprised nearly exclusively of  fruit of several dozen species, but also some orchid flowers and leaves. By dispersing the seeds of a large variety of plants, the guans perform an important ecological function maintaining the health of forest diversity.

Horned Guans were discovered in 1844, but the species is so rare and difficult to locate that the nest and eggs were not first observed until 1982 [1]. Its rarity is a result of deforestation over the past century which been caused mostly by farming, much of which is coffee. Horned Guans are also hunted, and this pressure has increased as forest has been converted to agriculture. Now, populations are very small and fragmented.

The core areas of the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve are some of the guan’s most important population centers. Biosphere reserves consist of core areas where no human activity is permitted, surrounded by buffer zones where activities of low ecological impact are practiced. One of the most critical activities is organic shade coffee farming. While Horned Guans are unlikely to occur within the coffee farms themselves, they have been recorded in some of the habitat set-asides in the buffer zones. Overall landscape characteristics have significant influence on biodiversity, especially for species which require large amounts of forest habitat, so the health and preservation of the buffer zones is an integral part of guan conservation.

Because of the communal land ownership in the area, community involvement in buffer zone management at El Triunfo is critical. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the first organic coffee farm cooperative was formed. Help from various aid, environmental, and coffee organizations has made organic coffee farming a success for both the communities and conservation. Starbucks has worked extensively here and sources their Shade Grown Mexico offering from these farmers. You can read more about their involvement and the coffee in a previous post.

Ecotourism is also important to communities in the buffer zones and elsewhere in areas where Horned Guans are found. Coffee farms and guan searches are often part of the same tourism projects, and provide income and incentive to preserve habitat for the abundant biodiversity in this region.

The continuing decline of Horned Guan populations has lead to the initiation of captive breeding programs. Fewer than 100 guans are present in a few zoos which are working to understand dietary needs and how to successfully breed the birds in captivity. Even if these projects succeed in raising new generations of guans, if their habitat is gone they can never be released. Their survival as a species in the wild depends on the preservation of their habitat.

Strictly speaking, Horned Guans are not found on shade coffee farms. But in a practical sense they depend on our support of ecologically-responsible activities near their forest homes, the most critical of which is shade coffee growing.

1. González-García, F. 1995. Reproductive biology and vocalizations of the horned guan Oreophasis derbianus in Mexico. Condor 97:415–426.

Horned Guan painting by Marco Pineda courtesy of CONABIO.

Photo of Horned Guan by Stormtrooper under a Creative Commons license (bird at St. Louis Zoo).

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Know Your Coffee Birds series

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