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).