1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Puff-bird

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PUFF-BIRD, the name first given, according to W. Swainson (Zool. Illustrations, 1st series, vol. ii.. text to pl. 99), by English residents in Brazil to a group of birds now placed in the sub-family Bucconinae, which with the Galbulinae or jacamars form the family Galbulidae of Coraciiform birds standing between the trogons (q.v.) and barbets, for a long time confounded, under the general name of barbets, with the Capitonidae of modern systematists. Each group has formed the subject of an elaborate monograph — the Capitonidae being treated by C. H. T. and G. F. L. Marshall (London, 1870-1871), and the Bucconidae by P. L. Sclater (London, 1879-1882). The Bucconinae are zygodactylous birds confined to the neotropical region, in the middle parts of which, and especially in its sub-Andean subregion, they are, as regards species, abundant; while only two seem to reach Guatemala and but one Paraguay. As with most South American birds, the habits and natural history of the Bucconidae have been but little studied, and of only one species, which happens to belong to a rather abnormal genus, has the nidification been described. This is the Chelidoptera tenebrosa, which is said to breed in holes in banks, and to lay white eggs much like those of the kingfisher and consequently those of the jacamars. From his own observation Swainson writes (loc. cit.) that puff-birds are very grotesque in appearance. They will sit nearly motionless for hours on the dead bough of a tree, and while so sitting “the disproportionate size of the head is rendered more conspicuous by the bird raising its feathers so as to appear not unlike a puff-ball. . . . When frightened their form is suddenly changed by the feathers lying quite flat.” They are very confiding birds and will often station themselves a few yards only from a window. The Bucconidae almost without exception are very plainly-coloured, and the majority have a spotted or mottled plumage suggestive of immaturity. The first puff-bird known to Europeans seems to have been that described by G. de L. Marcgrav, under the name of “tamatia,” by which it is said to have been called in Brazil, and there is good reason to think that his description and figure — the last, comic as it is in outline and expression, having been copied by F. Willughby and many of the older authors — apply to the Bucco maculatus of modern ornithology a bird placed by M. J. Brisson (Ornithologie, iv. 524) among the kingfishers. But if so, Marcgrav described and figured the same species twice, since his “Matuitui” is also Brisson's “Martin-pescheur tacheté du Brésil.”

P. L. Sclater divides the family into 7 genera, of which Bucco is the largest and contains 20 species. The others are Malacoptila and Monacha, each with 7, Nonnula with 5, Chelidoptera with 2, and Micromonacha and Hapaloptila with 1 species each. The most showy puff-birds are those of the genus Monacha, with an inky-black plumage, usually diversified by white about the head, and a red or yellow bill.