Waking up at Sylvan Camp can come a bit earlier than one might like. The first alarm at about 4:30 a.m. comes from Phallus, the rooster, perched safely up in the mango tree out of reach of hurled boots and immune to curses. Next is a maniacal call: chitico-chitico cao-cao-CAO cricO! This is often given in stereo for extra impact. As the sun slowly rises, one or two small chicken-like birds with black cocked tails, stride purposefully across the cleared area toward camp. They leap-fly up into the base of the mango tree where we store ripening bananas, and if the fruit is to their liking, they tuck in. These birds are Gray-cowled Wood Rails (previously known as Gray-necked). Normally quite shy and hard to see, they are a common feature not only at Sylvan but along the river and even beside the dirt road through Viquillas.
The wood rails, full of banana, hop down and make their way back to the banana grove or other cover, just before a kerfuffle erupts from the mango tree. The chickens hurl themselves groundward as Phallus breaks forth once again, crowing and pursuing his ladies. They all look hopefully at me to sprinkle corn for them, then set about their rounds in search of insects, seeds and other edibles.
The Gray-cowled Wood Rails generally eat arthropods, crabs, molluscs and frogs gleaned from the water’s edge. They will also take a variety of seeds and berries, as well as palm fruits – and bananas. These birds are mainly terrestrial in habit, running not flying when disturbed. They do tend to rest above ground and their nests are made 2-3 m up in a vine tangle or dense vegetation. The nest consists of a mass of dead leaves. The young are precocial, able to walk soon after hatching. Unlike their parents they are blackish in color.
At Sylvan the Wood Rails often return at dusk to check on the bananas, and sometimes choose to spend the night in the mango tree, close to their favorite breakfast snack. Rowdy as they can sometimes be, I always enjoy their visits.