Oil Birds

Jungle plants
Jungle plants

So here’s a little something you might never have heard of, the oil bird. When I think oil bird I always think of oiled birds, those black creatures accidentally trapped in spilled oil. Happily, oil birds are not oiled birds though the origins of their name are just as grim. Oil birds are a nocturnal, fruit eating bird of South America. They are the only bird in their family. That means there are no other birds like the oil bird. These unique avians live together in large groups inside of caves or cave-like formations. The oil birds use echolocation and smell to find fruit in the dark. They can fly nearly 120 miles away from their cave each night in search of food.

Burt and I heard about the oil bird cave in Ecuador and despite it being an hour drive from where we were I told him we had to go. I knew just enough to know that you must pilgrimage to the oil bird roost. We’d never see one just wandering around. Their nocturnal lifestyle and jungle habitat make them very hard to see. Burt had never heard of this creature. I told him I’d spotted some posts about it from friends that had been to Trinidad and seen them there. So off we went to visit La Cueva de los Tayos.

If you google cueva de los tayos you’ll find a bunch of stories about a famous cave, aliens, astronauts, Native Americans, and expeditions. That’s a different cave. If I ever go there, I’ll share that story. Here”s ours.

We found the Cueve de los Tayos well signed on the side of the highway 45, northeast of Baeza. Already that morning we’d hiked to a waterfall in the rain and we were thoroughly wet. We pulled into the roadside parking area and found a pair of city visitors and a guide. Our guide advised us that we were about to embark on a steep, muddy walk with a thigh deep river crossing. We were going to get wet. I replied we were already wet so let’s go. Our guide did not lie. It was a steep and muddy descent into the upper elevations of the Amazonian jungle. As we carefully made our way down slippery stones and mushy logs I pondered my lack of knowledge on the Amazon. Here I was in the actual jungle, in the Amazon watershed for the first time in my life and I was completely uninformed. Were there army ants? poisonous frogs? venomous snakes? I felt a slight taste of panic rising. Would I return home covered in leeches? Tropical diseases I hadn’t prepared for began to run through my head. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Wow. This was a fun way to pass a hike where the biggest risk was probably breaking my ankle. I talked myself off the ledge and reasoned that we were still too high for any tropical nightmares. But were we?

Eventually we reached the river. Going down is hard work because the body is fighting gravity and trying to use it at the same time. It’s much easier to fall while trying to stay in balance. Climbing is easier mechanically but much harder on the cardiac and respiratory systems. I was concerned I would not be up to the up hill climb. I put all these worries aside and followed my guide across the river. The thigh deep water was only to our knees. Burt’s and my knees. The guide and our Ecuadoran companions were nearly hip deep in the flow. This was a serious mini-expedition. I asked the guide if there was an easier way in and he said no. If you want to see these birds you’ve got to suck it up and do the work.

We followed the river up stream just a few hundred more feet. The greenery covered walls of the canyon closed together over our heads and we entered the nave of a natural cathedral. This wasn’t an actual cave but a tight spot in the canyon where light couldn’t reach. It was more like a tunnel. Light peaked in from the far side. Our guide urged us to keep quiet as we walked deeper into the darkened enclosure. Just over head a pair of big eyed birds gazed down. One at a time we each went in and stood. Birds called in a cat-like scream from all around and flew back and forth from shelf to shelf. It was magic. There was a lot of action and the birds were very loud. Nocturnal doesn’t mean they are all asleep all day long. They eat at night but they do other birdy things during the day. These birds seemed to be gossiping.

Eventually we turned back and made our way up and out. It was a nice slow pace and not difficult. I think it took about 30 minutes to go bottom to top. On our way up I asked about snakes and our guide said they aren’t found at that elevation. I can also report I contracted no tropical diseases and did not find any leeches.

Oil birds got their name because oil birds feed their chicks so much that they become super fat and eventually weigh more than the parent birds. These chicks were a rich source of food and easy to catch.  These plump chickies were eaten and also boiled up for oil. Check out THIS funny write up on the oil bird.

our guide to the oil bird cave.
our guide to the oil bird cave.
Jungle feel.
Jungle feel. The cave just ahead.
The ledges were stocked with cackling, calling oil birds.
The ledges were stocked with cackling, calling oil birds.
Cueva de los tayos. Oil bird cave.
Cueva de los tayos. Oil bird cave. See the bird up in the light?

5 thoughts on “Oil Birds”

  1. Great adventure, surviving tropical Amazonia forest and steep mountain descent-ascent. Oil’s well that ends well! :)

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