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Baryphthengus martii

Rufous Motmot

  • Order: Coraciiformes
  • Family: Momotidae
  • Polytypic 2 Subspecies

Authors: Master, Terry

Life History


The Rufous Motmot feeds on a wide variety of items ranging from invertebrates to small vertebrates and various fruits.  Invertebrates consumed include larval and adult insects of many types (including beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, roaches and wasps), arachnids (including spiders, scorpions and whip scoprions), centipedes, millipedes and small crustaceans (Forshaw and Cooper 1987). Wetmore (1968) found a whole crab among the stomach contents of an individual collected at Gatun on the Panama Canal. Vertebrates eaten range from small fish to lizards and frogs (Snow 2001). Master (1998, 1999) observed an adult Rufous Motmot feeding a Green and Green and Black Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus) © Terry MasterBlack Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus) to another adult individual, presumably as a courtship offering. Animal prey are often captured in low vegetation or from the ground, sometimes in the company of mixed-species flocks following army ants (Snow 1981). Plant material consumed includes the fruits of nutmegs (Virola), palms, berries and Heliconia (often plucked while hovering) as well as seeds of Inga and Protium which have been observed being fed to nestlings (Skutch 1971, Snow 2001).  One third of stomachs analyzed contained only fruit and a slightly smaller proportion contained both fruit and arthropods (Snow 1991). The larger motmot species, including the Rufous Motmot, typically consume a greater proportion of fruit than the smaller species (Snow 2001).


Rufous Motmots often reveal themselves when quickly sallying forth on fluttering wings  to capture a flying insect. Otherwise, they are quiet and unobtrusive birds that perch quietly, often on horizontal branches or thick vines at the mid to sub-canopy level of the forest, their only movement a sideways swishing of the tail in pendulum fashion if disturbed or threatened (Slud 1964, Skutch 1983, Snow 2001). They abruptly reverse position often, raising the tail so it does not strike the branch they are perched on when turning around (Snow 2001). They are most active at dawn and dusk when calls among individuals are frequently heard (Forshaw and Cooper 1987, Snow 2001).

A variety of behaviors are used to capture the many types of food items consumed.  Typically, insects are snatched from the air and fruits are plucked while hovering in the mid-levels of the forest, after which the birds return to their original perch (Skutch 1983, Snow 2001). Skutch (1983) watched an individual gathering orange fruits from a palm while perched and observed birds positioned in the forest understory picking prey items disturbed by army ants from leaves, tree trunks and even the ground occasionally. Insect prey often is beaten on a branch or other substrate before being eating (Skutch 1983, Snow 2001).

Rufous Motmots are usually seen singly or in pairs but Skutch (1983) observed a remarkable gathering of 13 individuals in a fringe of forest at La Selva, Costa Rica, which were not foraging but were agitated, moving frequently and calling constantly. One individual held a leaf fragment in its beak suggestive of courtship behavior more typically observed in "Blue-crowned Motmots" (Momotus momota complex).

Tail movements are used to indicate disturbance or perceived threats. Characteristically, the tail is swung from side to side like a pendulum (Skutch 1983, Snow 2001), sometimes being held out to the side before swinging resumes (Snow 2001). Slud (1964) observed individuals perched obliquely, rather than vertically, with the tail held straight, raised above horizontal and subsequently raised and lowered or swished side-to-side. Flights are usually of short duration, rapid and direct on fluttering wings. They do not cross large bodies of water and do not engage in any long distance movements (Snow 2001).  


This species is territorial although details, such as territory size, are lacking. Pairs call back and forth, sometimes at different pitches, as do the owners of separate territories, especially at dawn and dusk. On Barro Colorado Island, Panama, three to six individuals called back and forth to settle territorial disputes (Forshaw and Cooper 1987).

Sexual Behavior

Little information available. Generalized evidence suggests that all motmot species engage in duetting (Snow 2001) which is typically used in territorial defense and maintaining pair bonds. Observations of an individual in a group of 13 birds holding a leaf in its bill (Skutch 1983) and of an adult provisioning another adult with a Green and Black Poison Dart Frog Dendrobates auratus (Master 1998, 1999) both suggest that courtship feeding occurs in the Rufous Motmot as it does in the Blue-crowned Motmot Momotus coeruliceps (Skutch 1983). 

Social and interspecific behavior

Rufous Motmots most often are observed singly or in pairs (Forshaw and Cooper 1987, Snow 2001). As many as three to six individuals have been heard calling at dawn and dusk from separate territories on Barro Colorado Island, Panama (Forshaw and Cooper 1987). Situations do occur where larger numbers of individuals congregate. Skutch (1983) observed a group of 13 agitated and very active individuals at La Selva, Costa Rica, that he likened to similar courtship groups observed more commonly in Blue-crowned Motmots (Momotus coeruliceps). Gatherings of individuals also occur in the presence of army ants (Willis 1981). 


No data available.


There are few reported breeding and nesting details specific to the Rufous Motmot. Snow (2001) states that general breeding information is rather consistent among motmot species and thus likely applies to the Rufous Motmot as well. Members of the family nest in burrows excavated by both sexes in earthen banks working in alternating shifts. They can be as long as 3-5 m in larger species, are not necessarily straight, sometimes even having 90º bends in them if dug around unforeseen obstacles. Their feet are used to both loosen soil initially and gradually push it out of the burrow entrance where a mound of excavated dirt accumulates. Burrows often have two grooves in the dirt leading into the burrow resulting from traffic entering and exiting. Burrow entrances are usually wider than high and terminate in an oval-shaped nest chamber.

Motmot clutch size typically ranges from three to five eggs, with a range of two to six; but the clutch size for Rufous Motmot has not been reported. Eggs are white and nearly spherical in shape, incubated by both parents with nestlings fed by both parents as well. Nestlings lack down, growing feathers similar to adult feathers but duller in color a few days after hatching. There is no evidence of nest sanitation. Incubation, nestling and fledgling dependency periods remain unknown. Skutch (1971) describes what remains the only detailed account of nesting behavior of this species above the Rio Puerto Viejo at La Selva, Costa Rica, in June of 1967. He  found a nest burrow obscured  by a fallen tree that was apparently extended from an existing mammal burrow.  The adults were observed carrying fruits, white arillate seeds and mangled insects and other invertebrates  into the nest, always arriving at the nest separately. This nest failed  after which the parents commenced lengthening the old burrow or digging a new tunnel off of the larger mammal den.  One member of the pair waited outside the entrance while the other dug, sometimes calling, and each would kick loosened soil up the burrow and out of the entrance with alternate strokes of their feet. The outcome of the second nest was not known but another nesting occurred in the vicinity the next year providing evidence that one bird left the burrow early at dawn and was replaced by the other member of the pair until mid day when that individual was relieved of incubation duties until early the next day. This pair was feeding nestlings by 1 June 1968 although the final outcome of that nest was not reported.

Others have provided additional clues to nesting chronology. On 17 April 1971 a female with a fully developed egg in her oviduct was collected near Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica (Forshaw and Cooper 1987). Willis (1981) noticed pairs in Panama with muddy bills from 24 April to 21 August and individuals with clean bills from 9 May to 15 September suggesting extensive overlap of various stages of nesting activity. A pair was seen near Cerro Campana, central Panama, on 26 and 27 June carrying food away from an ant swarm (Forshaw and Cooper 1987).

Populations and Demography

No data available.

Recommended Citation

Master, Terry. 2011. Rufous Motmot (Baryphthengus martii), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: