White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata)

White-capped Tanager female. Recalde brothers/EcoMinga.

The White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata) is a spectacular large tanager native to the northern Andes of South America. In Ecuador it is found only on the eastern slope, at elevations from about 1500m to over 3000m. When I first began birding in South America, in 1990, it was a poorly-known, seldom-seen bird, and it was thought to be very rare and local. Every sighting was a thrill! Over the years, increased birding and better access to its cloud forest habitat has shown that it is actually quite widespread, but always at low densities. (Every sighting is still a thrill, though!) They are often seen flying long distances between feeding episodes, so their territories seem to be very large, much larger than that of other tanagers. These large territories may be related to its habit of attacking paper wasp nests and eating their larvae. This unusual feeding habit has only recently been discovered by biologists, though EcoMinga’s forest caretakers have long known about it.

White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

The White-capped Tanager’s social structure is also different from other tanagers; rather than traveling in pairs, the adults travel in small groups of up to 20, usually with only one male. These are thought to be extended families with communal breeding; my friend Harold Greeney and his collaborators have observed up to four adult birds bringing food to a single fledgling.

These characteristics are all rather un-tanager-like, and before the days of DNA this species’ taxonomic relationships were rather uncertain. Thanks to DNA analysis we now know that it really is a tanager.

Further reading: Greeney, H. F., J. Simbana, K. S. Sheldon, A. Craik, and R. Jonsson. 2007. Observations on the nesting and diet of the White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata) in eastern Ecuador. Ornitologia Neotropical 18: 139-142.

Lou Jost

5 thoughts on “White-capped Tanager (Sericossypha albocristata)

  1. LOL, after seeing the video I was going to call this a spectacular bird, only to find you’d beaten me to it in your first line. OK, then–magnificent! Thanks for the wonderful video.

    Having been watching the Brazilian web-cams, I got to wondering just how large the tanager family is; Google tells me, “The Thraupidae are the second-largest family of birds and represent about 4% of all avian species and 12% of the Neotropical birds.”

    I was going to guess that the largest family is the Tyrant Flycatchers?

  2. Hi Lou,

    I’ve been following your blogs with interest. Ecuador is such an amazing place, we are going back there next January. And you and other environmental groups are accomplishing so much to preserve habitats and to document key species, it’s terrific.

    Could I ask, what I the biggest challenge you have? Do the various environmental groups like yours coordinate on land purchase planning and preservation, acquisition etc? Do you have a target list of key sites? Is it true the government can legally mine, drill etc on protected land? I am very involved in similar efforts in the U.S. so would be very interested in what you have to say.

    Best Regards, Sue


    • Thanks for the kind words, Sue. Our biggest challenge is funding operating expenses, and the second-biggest challenge is government bureaucracy. We can always slow or pause our land purchases if funding is tight, but we cannot stop paying our operating expenses. Donors prefer to fund more tangible things, such as land purchases, and tend to think of operating expenses as secondary. But they are not secondary, they are as necesaary as funds for land purchases. We need staff to deal with the government’s accounting, reporting, and bureaucratic requirements, and we need guards to keep the flora and fauna safe in our reserves.

      Beginning this year, the World Land Trust is paying the salaries of all four of our guards, and this is big step towards stability. They account for about half our operating expenses. We also have some very kind donors who have given major unrestricted donations this year, and these can cover most of the rest of our operating expenses for this year (though not for next year).

      In Ecuador, the most active and sincere foundations do coordinate or cooperate. I have done biodiversity work for several other foundations, and we have also had guard exchanges among foundations so that guards from one foundations can share their insights with those of other foundations. Each of the major foundations here has different foci, either in terms of the animals or plants they try to protect, or the geographic area in which they work.

      Each foundation has different ideas about what is a “key” site, there is no master list. Our own “key sites” are places with high local plant endemism. Other groups have different objectives. Nevertheless most sites with many local endemic species of plants also tend to have many local endemic species of amphibians, reptiles, etc.

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