In Search of Arizona's Elegant Visitor

Just one look at the trogon is enough to turn birders into believers

06-01-2001 // Tim Vanderpool

EVEN WHEN he’s talking birds — as he constantly does — Rick Taylor can suddenly pluck an elegant trogon’s cry from amidst dense treetop avian symphonies. It’s a striking, if somewhat unnerving, skill to observe so early on this soggy, hot June morning.

Perched at the mouth of a piñon-whiskered canyon in southeast Arizona, the wildlife guide is passionately expounding on the trogon’s qualities before he abruptly falls silent.

Five seconds pass. "Nope," he then says with a flinch. "Darn. Thought I might get lucky. But we are at the edge of their range."

The monologue resumes.

Some might label Taylor’s fervor a bit eccentric. That’s until they’ve seen an elegant trogon for themselves, or heard its bold call echoing through rugged canyons. Nearly mythical in repute, the species draws enraptured birders to these mountains like disciples to Mecca. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a biologist—to understand why. Elegant trogons (and the rarer eared trogons) are shimmering jewels in shaded woodlands along the Mexican border. Measuring nearly a foot from stem to stern and wingtip to wingtip, their assertive nature and brilliant plumage make for one stunning creature.

Taylor, the owner of Borderland Tours, is hardly a shy partisan. "They’re arguably the most beautiful birds in the United States," he says simply. "Just see one, and you’re hooked."

He should know. If the trogon has sparked an almost cultlike following, then Taylor is its reigning guru. He was the first to make reliable trogon population counts while traipsing around southeastern Arizona as a U.S. Forest Service fire fighter in the 1970s. He later helped prod the Forest Service into protecting the trogon’s prime nesting habitat, the South Fork and Cave Creek Canyon areas of Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. And he sealed his status by penning the benchmark guide, Trogons of the Arizona Borderlands.

Today, he and 17 volunteers are commencing the yearly June trogon count around Cave Creek and South Fork. Taylor doesn’t expect surprises; the region’s population of about 50 nesting pairs "stays pretty constant," he says. "They’re hardy, and they’re smart." Even a growing stream of tourists hasn’t had much effect — Taylor says the birds have learned to ignore foot traffic.

Nor is fascination with the species anything new. The Maya and Aztec Indians ascribed great spiritual power to the birds, and some believed trogons embodied reincarnated spirits of dead warriors. Modern perspectives on Trogon elegans date to 1884, when a worker reported "a kind of bird of paradise" in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson—Arizona’s first official sighting.

Elegant trogons remain rare in the United States. They’re also quite picky about their breeding habitat, nesting each spring in tree cavities in just a dozen or so sycamore-lined canyons. In southern Arizona, suitable trogon habitat covers only about 1,000 acres in four mountain ranges along the international border.

When mating season ends, almost all the elegant trogons abandon Arizona. However, their overall range and migratory patterns aren’t known, nor are their numbers in Mexico. While not great distance-fliers, Arizona’s trogons may be found as far as 500 miles south of the border, Taylor believes. Elegant trogons are regularly seen along the Rio Cuchujaqui in southernmost Sonora during midwinter.

But one thing remains certain: Come spring, some 200 acres in the Cave Creek-South Fork area rank among the frisky trogons’ favorite destinations. The dense canyons offer plenty of what they love best: a smorgasbord of juicy insects and flora such as the southwestern chokeberry tree, canyon grapevine and Arizona sycamore.

The trogons’ tastes in habitat are not unique. They share these verdant canyons with 350 other bird species, from hermit thrushes to canyon wrens (both prime clues to good trogon habitat). In fact, Cave Creek ranks among the most biologically diverse spots in North America.

Many researchers consider trogons an indicator species, since they’re found only in ecologically rich and healthy canyons. "That’s one of the reasons we do this cursory monitoring program each year," says Gary Helbing, a Forest Service biologist. "Where we find trogons, we also find a high abundance of other species and a real quality of habitat."

Like Taylor, Helbing is also awaiting this morning’s first trogon call. He’s well-armed, with a parabolic dish and elaborate recording equipment. Taylor, meanwhile, is bounding up a nearby trail, hoping to find nesting pairs on the far reaches of their Cave Creek hub. He has the restless exuberance of a kid on Christmas Eve. "I was first drawn to these birds for aesthetic reasons, not for scientific ones," he says. "I still get excited every time I see one."

Not hard to figure, given that a male elegant boasts no less than nine colors, from its yellow bill and brown feet to a distinctive, orange eye-ring. The bird has a deep green back and throat, a shining white bar across the chest, a black face and black bars on the undertail. Its breast is crimson, its wings grayish. And the upper tail is metallic copper or olive green. But even a slight shift in lighting can transform the male’s back feathers from opalescent green to gleaming sky blue.

Then comes the trogon’s famed chutzpah. In his book, Taylor writes of a nesting pair driving young Cooper’s hawks away from their fledglings—to the point of exasperation. "Elegant trogons are capable of swift, evasive bursts of flight," he writes. "They are equipped with keen senses. They are intelligent enough to discriminate between sluggish, inexperienced young hawks and adult raptors...."

Taylor also reported the first recorded U.S. sighting of the elegant’s cousin, the more elusive eared trogon, in 1977. With a smaller head and bill, this bird gets its name from its long ear feathers. Both belong to a 39-member, pantropical family of birds dating back to Archaeotrogon, which inhabited the moist forests of Europe 30 to 40 million years ago.

All males of this family are distinguished by iridescent plumage, and range in size from the 24-inch quetzal down to the 8-inch violaceous trogon. The elegant falls in the middle at about 12 inches, and weighs roughly 70 grams. Females of the species are typically half an inch larger than their mates.

The birds also share a distinct characteristic with parrots and woodpeckers: of their four toes, two point backward. They perch upright on branches in what appears an awkward, pigeonlike stance. But trogons are not clumsy creatures. They can shoot up in vertical flight with incredible zest, chasing bugs or protecting their young.

Besides the Chiricahuas, trogons also nest in Arizona’s Atascosa, Peloncillo, Huachuca and Santa Rita mountains, all near the Mexican border. Taylor believes their expansion into this territory began a little more than a century ago. It may correspond to a gradual temperature increase of about 3.5 degrees F since the 1870s, a phenomenon some researchers blame on extensive de-vegetation from cattle grazing.

Just as the trogons dutifully return here each year, so do the dedicated survey volunteers. Now, as the sun steadily climbs, various monitoring teams have fanned out to their designated posts. Hushed murmurs of trogon spotters can be heard up the oak-shaded trail in Cave Creek, where guide Dave Jasper has them stopped trailside. He’s pointing to a pair of elegants in the throes of a mating ritual, centered around a huge and ancient Arizona sycamore.

The female is playing hard to get, as the male tries luring her to an abandoned woodpecker nest with hopeful calls of "kuh, kuh." He hangs from the edge of the cavity and cruises up to a nearby branch, those legendary feathers flashing black and green. His zealous courting intensifies as the coppery female flits repeatedly into the hole, only to climb right back out. "That poor guy still can’t get her to accept the nest," Jasper says. "But he’s sure trying."

It’s a crucial romance: These birds don’t boast a rampant reproductive rate. Nesting once a year, they usually raise only two offspring at a shot. In addition, Taylor reports that only about half of the nests actually fledge young each season because of predation by snakes, hawks and small mammals.

But what they lack in proliferation they make up in pluck. "That fellow isn’t about to admit defeat," Jasper says. "He has plenty of grit." The guide predicts eventual success for the stubborn bird. "This is the third year these two have nested at this site," he says. "It’s just a matter of time."

The male is left to his amorous pursuit, as survey volunteers head back down the trail to their cars. But like the enamored bird, they’ll probably return to this spot next spring, determined to catch another glimpse of Arizona’s "bird of paradise."

Tucson writer Tim Vanderpool has become yet another die-hard trogon devotee. Charles W. Melton lives in Colorado and has photographed Arizona’s trogons extensively.

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