The Chachalacas of Sapelo Island

by Evelyn Sherr

Chachalaca

photo by Brian Gratwicke

There is something curious about the range of the plain chachalaca, a drab olive-brown pheasant native to Mexico and Central America. There are a couple of spots where this non-migrating bird suddenly appears well outside of its expected distribution. One is in Texas, the other on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Both of these ‘out-of-range’ populations result from intentional introduction of the bird for hunting.

Howard Coffin, a pioneer in automobiles and aviation, bought Sapelo Island in 1911 and restored the Civil War era buildings on the south end as a lavish home. (Coffin’s other contributions in Georgia included starting the wood pulp industry on the coast and developing tourist resorts on St. Simons and Sea Islands.) Coffin often invited friends to hunt wild turkeys and other game on the island. The three-tiered concrete Turkey Fountain by the present Marine Institute was built by Coffin for slaking the thirst of the dogs, horses, and men on the hunts. Wanting to add another game bird to the island, in 1923 Coffin imported chachalacas from Mexico. Finding Sapelo’s groves of live oak to be quite suitable habitat, the peasants soon established a thriving population of about 30-40 birds. According to the Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia, this flock has been going strong for the past 80-plus years. Although sometimes spotted on Blackbeard and Little St. Simons Islands, chachalacas have so far only persisted on Sapelo.

Unlike other peasants, chachalacas are mainly arboreal, flapping and climbing among tree branches as they search for acorns, seeds, fruits, and occasional insects. They construct nests of twigs, leaves, and moss up in the spreading oaks. The chachalacas of Sapelo Island are elusive as they flit among the leafy boughs. Spotting them is a challenge for island residents and visitors. I was a research scientist at the University of Georgia Marine Institute from 1974 to 1990; my experiences with the wildlife of the island and surrounding salt marsh estuaries during that time form the basis of my book: Marsh Mud and Mummichogs: an Intimate Natural History of Coastal Georgia. While living on Sapelo, I only saw the famous (or infamous) resident chachalacas once. Driving back from the beach near sunset, I was surprised by a dark, long-tailed bird hurtling past my truck. I stopped in time to see several more of the flock burst from the trees on one side of the road to land in a chinaberry tree on the other side. Quickly disappearing into the shrubbery, they teased me with their garrulous, and eponymous, ‘cha-cha-ah-cah’. These distinctive calls were, and still are, heard in Sapelo oak groves, especially on the south end of the island.

To hear their loud chatter, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website page on the plain chachalaca. For a close-up view of plain chachalacas, see the live bird cam of the Sabal Palm Santuary near Brownsville, Texas. The sanctuary is near the northern limit of this pheasant’s natural range. There are links to more videos on their website, including this video below of chachalacas pecking at seeds and an orange half on the bird feeder.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Sherr_MarshMudEvelyn Sherr is the author of Marsh Mud and Mummichogs: An Intimate Natural History of Coastal Georgia (Georgia). She is an emeritus professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University and has published widely in the fields of ocean ecology and biogeochemistry. She was a research scientist at the University of Georgia Marine Institute from 1974 to 1990.

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