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Malacoptila panamensis

White-whiskered Puffbird

  • Order: Galbuliformes
  • Family: Bucconidae
  • Polytypic 4 Subspecies

Authors: Stone, Kathryn L

Life History


The primary food items for the White-whiskered Puffbird are large orthopterans (generally locusts), moths, spiders, and lizards. There also are reports of the species catching and consuming snakes, including poisonous coral snakes (Smith 1969). The species has also been recorded following army ants in order to feed on insects the armies flush (Willis 1982).


Frequently described as "stupid" and "lethargic", the White-whiskered Puffbird often remains motionless on a perch for long periods of time, feathers fluffed, demonstrating the nature of its name. This assertion of stupidity is most frequently made by collectors, who noted the reluctance of the species to flee when approached, making it an easy target. The puffbird is a sit-and-wait predator, scanning the ground from a perch, usually not high above the ground. When prey is spotted, the puffbird sallies out, captures prey with bill, and generally returns to the same perch (Skutch 1948). With large prey, such as lizards and snakes, the animal is struck once or twice on the perch before being consumed (Stiles and Skutch 1989).


Thought to be quite territorial in pairs. Will follow army ants in order to prey on other insects flushed by their movements, but will not venture beyond the boundaries of their territories in pursuit (Willis 1982).

Sexual Behavior

Very little information. Often encountered in pairs, so presumably is monogamous.

Social and interspecific behavior

Typically solitary or paired, and almost never seen in conspecific groups of more than three. Occasionally associates with mixed species flocks (Skutch 1958, Stiles and Skutch 1989, Hilty and Brown 1986).


Not well documented, though Skutch (1958), in his observations made of the bird, expressed concern over the possibility of snake predation on chicks in the burrows.


Most observations on the breeding of the White-whiskered Puffbird are by Skutch, from Costa Rica (Skutch 1948, Skutch 1958).  Nests are in burrows, which are excavated in slightly sloping ground of primary lowland evergreen forest. These burrows are 46-56 cm long, and angle down at approximately 30º. The entry hole is 5-7.6 cm in diameter, and the bore remains this width until the base, where it expands into a larger cavity. The adults line the cavity with large pieces of dead leaves, and the eggs rest on top. The entrance hole is camouflaged with twigs and leaves. A burrow may be used in successive years (Skutch 1958).

In Costa Rica the breeding season begins in mid-March, and extends into June and July, with a peak in April and May (Skutch 1958). Willis and Eisenmann (1979) found 11 nests in Panama between May and August, although birds were observed digging burrows from January-October. Specimens in breeding condition were collected in northwestern Colombia from February-May (Hilty and Brown 1986).

Females lay typically two (rarely three) roundish white eggs, measuring approximately 27.8 x 21.8 mm (Skutch 1958). Male birds incubate throughout the night, leaving the nest in the early morning, and leaving the eggs unattended for approximately an hour and a half. The female then approaches the nest cautiously and incubates between six and eight hours. Rarely, the male returns before she leaves the nest, but when this occurs, he will wait outside the burrow until she has fled. The male then takes over incubation once again for the remainder of the day and through the following morning (Skutch 1980).

After hatching, the male is responsible for brooding, while the female brings food to the chicks. Males only leave the burrow for a few hours each day, and do not seem to accept any food from the female during her visits to the feed the young. Throughout the feeding period, two chicks are fed fewer than once per hour, though the timing between feedings is incredibly variable (Skutch 1958). After four days of brooding, the chicks are accompanied by the male less continuously, and around seven days after hatching, the young begin to spend nights unattended, huddling together for warmth (Skutch 1980).

Observations from a blind near the nest of a pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds describe the young as being mobile from a very young age, able to crawl from the base of the burrow to the edge (35-45 cm) to accept food from the female parent. The chicks are, however, altricial, born blind and completely naked (Skutch 1958). The bill of just-born chicks is curved downward, and the mandible does not extend past the maxilla as in woodpeckers. At day six, pin-feathers become prominent on wings and head, and begin to bristle but remained sheathed two to three days later. At ten days, the sheath comes off and eyes open. The bill is white at this point. By day fourteen, the chicks are well-feathered and resembling small adults in coloration. The white malar tufts appear by day eighteen (Skutch 1958). The young rarely exposed themselves at the mouth of the burrow or make noise (Skutch 1980). The chicks, once left unattended at night,  seal the burrow each night with leafy materials lining the nest to further camouflage the entrance (Skutch 1958).

Fledging typically occurs around twenty days after hatching, and the White-whiskered Puffbird generally raises one brood per season (Skutch 1958).

Populations and Demography

There is no information related to topics such age at first breeding, life span and survivorship, dispersal, or population regulation.

Recommended Citation

Stone, Kathryn L. 2010. White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: