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Plantcutters: Phytotomidae

Peruvian Plantcutter (phytotoma Raimondii): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: Adult Peruvian plantcutters are 7 to 8 inches (18 to 20 centimeters) in length and weigh approximately 1.5 ounces (40 grams). Both males and females have bright yellow eyes and a short crest, but the male is more colorful, with red patches on his lower breast and forehead. The birds' short wings make them agile fliers, and their strong feet allow them to grasp their leafy food tightly as they shred it with their tough, ridged beaks.

Geographic range: The Peruvian plantcutter lives only in coastal northwestern Peru, from the city of Tumbes south to the capital, Lima.

Habitat: Adapted to the dry environment known as the Tumbesian ecosystem, the Peruvian plantcutter prefers desert scrub, low woodlands (both open and dense), and occasionally thickets near or next to rivers. Its habitat is always populated with caper shrubs, acacia (uh-KAY-shah) trees, the Prosopis tree, and climbing vines in the cucumber family. The Peruvian plantcutter is notoriously sensitive to any changes in its environment, including noise, light, and contamination.

Diet: Although it eats occasional bits of fruit, the Peruvian plantcutter gets most of its nutrition from the leaves and buds of the Prosopis tree and various shrubs. In terms of diet, the bird has adapted to its dry environment by extracting most of its water from the foliage it eats.

The Peruvian plantcutter gets most of its nutrition from the leaves and buds of the Prosopis tree and various shrubs. The bird has adapted to its dry environment by extracting most of its water from the foliage it eats. (Illustration by Michelle Meneghini. Reproduced by permission.)

Behavior and reproduction: The Peruvian species of plantcutter is a high-energy and active bird, patrolling its territory during the day to flush out interlopers and find new sources of food. Its throbbing, sad song has prompted locals to nickname it the "toothache bird."

Scientists know very little about the reproductive habits of the bird. However, field biologists have observed that they build loose nests and that the females lay between two and four eggs. The eggs are a mottled brown color to help camouflage (KAM-uh-flaj; hide) them from predators, animals that hunt them for food. The females incubate the eggs, keep them warm, by sitting on them for an unknown period of time.

Peruvian plantcutters and people: The Peruvian plantcutter has become a rallying symbol for Peru's emerging conservation movement. Champions of the bird have been fighting to save the estimated 500 to 1,000 remaining birds by educating the public and trying to block agricultural interests from developing the plantcutter's last population stronghold near Talara.

Conservation status: There are only four recent records of sightings of this bird, leading to its classification by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as Endangered. The Peruvian plantcutter is extremely choosy about its habitat. The species has failed to colonize some apparently suitable territory, which has puzzled experts.

A nongovernment conservation group called ProAvesPeru is the leader in the effort to save the Peruvian plantcutter. Sponsored and supported by the Audubon Society of Latin America, ProAvesPeru's main goal is to establish the Talara Reserve. Another ally of the plantcutter is Gunnar Engblom, a Swedish ornithologist who in 1999 conducted the first ecological study of the bird's habitat.

The main threats to Peruvian plantcutters are gold mining, animal grazing, illegal logging for firewood, and the installation of new crops such as sugar cane.



Feduccia, Alan. The Origin and Evolution of Birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Skutch, Alexander F. Life Histories of Central American Birds. Vol. 3. Berkeley, CA: Cooper Ornithological Society, 1969.


Lopez-Calleja, M. V., and F. Bozinovic. "Energetics and Nutritional Ecology of Small Herbivorous Birds." Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 73 (September 2000): 411–420.

Prum, R. O., et al. "A Preliminary Phylogenic Hypothesis for the Cotingas (Cotingidae) Based on Mitochrondrial DNA." Auk 117 (2000).

Web sites:

"Birder's Exchange Recipients." American Birding Association. http://www.americanbirding.org/programs/consbexr3.htm (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Tambogrande Referendum Has Domino Effect in Peru." Americas Program. http://www.americaspolicy.org/citizen-action/focus/0207tambogrande_body.html (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Conservation of the Critically Endangered Peruvian Plantcutter in Talara Province, NW Peru." Audubon Latin America. http://www.audubon.org/local/latin/bulletin6/initiatives.html (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Birdlife Species Factsheet (extended): Peruvian Plantcutter (Phytotoma raimondii)." Birdlife International. http://www.birdlife.net (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Conservation of the Threatened Peruvian Plantcutter." Communications for a Sustainable Future. http://csf.colorado.edu/mail/elan/jan99/0053.html (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Phytotomidae." Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/winkler/botw/phytotomidae.html (accessed on April 27, 2004).

"Phytotomidae: Plantcutters." John Penhallurick's Bird Data Project. http://www.worldbirdinfo.net (accessed on April 27, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsPlantcutters: Phytotomidae - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Peruvian Plantcutter (phytotoma Raimondii): Species Accounts - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, PLANTCUTTERS AND PEOPLE, CONSERVATION STATUS