There’s more to Cuba than rum, cigars, sun-kissed sands, dreamy beaches that go on for miles and intoxicating rhythms that give way to frenetic, hip-swaying dancing. But you probably already knew that, and if you didn’t, well then; are you in for a big surprise! Yet, today we’re not here to talk about Cuba’s many puzzling, enigmatic and addictive draws, its colourful cultural peculiarities and multiple conundrums. On this post we’re going to concentrate on one of its most astounding natural treasures – its fascinatingly rich and diverse birdlife.
Cuba’s impressive avifauna comprises over 370 species, 28 of which are endemic to the island, making it the one Caribbean nation with the biggest bird endemicity. Only the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago come close to Cuba in terms of birdlife variety, (with Tobago being the only one to actually surpass the total number of recorded bird species) and even then, all of them put together can´t match Cuba´s endemicity, with only nine endemic birds in total (Bahamas has six, Trinidad and Tobago two and the Dominican Republic one) compared to Cuba´s nearly 30…That’s certainly winning by a long shot! Now you know that you’re definitely in for a treat if you choose Cuba as your birdwatching destination.
If you make it there to feast your eyes on the colourful Cuban plumage there are ten feathered creatures that you should go out of your way to see (and cross your fingers hard to be granted the privilege). Some on this list are more critically endangered than others so you should thank your lucky stars if you so much as glimpse one at all. Others, are more easily seen in some areas, so you should have no trouble in checking them off your list. What they all have in common is also happen to be the most beautiful and rare. So, prepare those goggles and drum roll as we get started with our top seven birds to spot in Cuba.
Cuba’s top five birds and where to spot them
If you’re a nature lover and keen birder, Cuba can indeed be your ideal tropical birdwatching paradise. With many of the places I recommend here for bird-spotting also being UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, there’ll be much more to your birdwatching adventure than catching sights of rare birds. From stunning hiking trails to lush valleys, impressive waterfalls, scenic rivers and rugged mountainos landscapes, you can get to know a wondrous, less-seen and little-touched side of Cuba on your birding quest.
Bee Hummingbird “zunzuncito”
One of the most popular and cutest winged creatures in this list, the tiny, pinkie-sized Bee Humminbird, locally known as “zunzuncito” is one of the most delightful ones to watch in flight (as it hardly ever stops in its energetic flying frenzy and it’s highly improbable you’ll catch him resting perched on a tree branch, both due to its size and the fact that it needs nectar nonstop so they spend most of the day hovering above flowers).
The Cuban Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) could arguably be declared the most special of all in this list as it boasts the title of Smallest Living Bird in the World at just over 5 cm (5.5 cm for males and 6.1 cm for females) and an average weight of just 2 grams! It’s also the world’s hottest bird – quite literally! – with a body temperature of 40 degrees Celsius during the day, dropping to 19 at night to save energy. Its other most amazing, record-breaking peculiarity is the frenetic, fast-paced movement of its wing, flapping at an astounding rate of up to 200 times per second, and thus creating the characteristic humming sound that gives this adorable bird species its name.
Don’t believe some of the online claims from some birding pages that state it to be an endangered species and therefore hard to spot – if anything it’s only its size that may make it trickier for you to realise that it’s the bee hummingbird you’re seeing and its colourful blur as it buzzes past is not a trick of the light. Its conservation status is officially classified as near threatened, so not currently considered vulnerable or endangered so you should really have no trouble spotting it. It may be super tiny and buzzes by at full speed ahead, but then again, its vigorous flapping of the wings make it unmistakable, so you have a pretty good chance of at least glimpsing one.
I myself have witnessed the zunzuncito’s iridescent, buzzing flight in the most unexpected places and almost always have attempted to capture if I happened to have camera in hand. It’s not as rare or difficult to find as you might expect and I’ve spotted a few within hotel and resort grounds, (yes, really!) both in Varadero and Guardalavaca, hovering at full speed ahead over flowers in its wing-flapping frenzy before quickly disappearing again.
Where to spot it – The bee hummingbird can be found throughout the entire Cuban archipelago, from mainland to the Isle of Youth and even the keys. It is endemic to dense forests and woodlands but can be found in many rural areas and gardens. The largest populations of bee hummingbirds can be found Pinar del Rio’s Vinales Valley, and around the Cienaga de Zapata, in Playa Larga and its surrounding areas. Though like I said, it’s not that hard to get lucky and find it even in an urban garden!
Cuban Trogon – Tocororo
With regal colouring and a dignified appearance, it’s no wonder the Cuban Trogon has been declared Cuba’s national bird. It also helps that its plumage bears all the colours found in the Cuban flag and the fact that it cannot survive in captivity– a nod to Cuba’s decades of fights for independence, first from the Spanish colonisers and later from corrupt local governments that attended to U.S. interests. So, there is that element of freedom that this bird also represents.
The tocororo or Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus) is a stunning bird, widely considered the most beautiful in Cuba. Its name in Spanish derives from the sound it makes with its call: toco-toco-tocororo-tocororo. And as peculiar as its song is, its long fluffy tail is unique in the trogon family. Measuring between 26 and 28 centimetres from beak to tail, its vibrant colour markings include a dark blue crown, a bright red belly, beak and eyes, a teal green back and a white throat and chest. The tips of its wings are black with white markings so that when they are folded they look like white and black stripes on either side of the body. The same black and white patterns are found on both sides of the tail’s edges while the tail’s centre changes from teal green at the top to dark blue at the tip. So many colour combinations do indeed make it a striking bird to admire! If you’re lucky to catch a sighting of a Cuban trogon in flight all the better; as you will be able to see the wing markings forming a completely different pattern once spread out. Lucky you if you manage to forever capture the moment with a camera!
Its classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, by so you shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting one in its natural habitat, for which you’ll have to embark on specific trails along some rural parts of Cuba. Unlike the bee hummingbird this species doesn’t adapt to gardens or urban stretches and you’ll only find it in the depths of the wood, inhabiting dry and moist forests of all altitudes, especially in areas where pine trees and tall trees abound. They prefer the shade to the sun so you’ll most likely spot them perched on a tree branch and their diet mainly consists of seeds, fruits, flowers and insects. During mating season (April to July) they nest in tree crevices that have been abandoned by woodpeckers, so watch out for any red beaks peaking through tree holes – it might be a tocororo!
Where and how to spot it – The Cuban Trogon is probably the easiest one to find in this list, if you know where to look, of course. There are healthy populations of tocororos in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Santiago de Cuba and in Sabana Camaguey archipelago, more precisely in the keys of Cayo Guanaja and Cayo Sabinal. A slightly different variety of the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus vescus) inhabits only in the pinewoods of Isle of Youth, so if you are able to photograph both subspecies perhaps you may notice the very slight differences upon viewing your photos later.
Most likely you’ll spot a Cuban trogon resting on a tree branch, as they are not the most active of birds but if you do manage to catch them in flight, an added peculiarity is that they travel in pairs and you won’t be able to miss them in action as they make quite a bit of noise because of their rough flying technique, not very graceful but very handy when it comes to spotting them – be quick about it thought they tend to launch into sudden bursts of flying to catch food in mid-air but these flights tend to be short and over before you know it.
Cuban Tody – Cartacuba or Pedorrera
This exceptional little bird doesn’t go over 11 centimetres in height and yet it’s a wonder how such a small body can pack such a varied vibrancy of colours - it’s like a feathered mini carnival! With a stout, compact body and a prominent head that stands out in comparison to the rest of its miniscule frame, the Cuban Tody, locally known as the “Cartacuba” or “Pedorrera” (Todus multicolour) is the joy of the Cuban countryside.
Its bright coloration includes an iridescent dorsum with the colour green dominating most of its head, back and tail, with a dash of bright blue just below its cheeks on either side of its neck, a pale whitish-grey belly and pink to coral red highlights on either side that look almost like a conveniently added blusher to infuse an extra dose of drama. The throat is red, its eyes blue to blueish-grey, an extra added blob of colour paints its lores bright yellow and the long flat bill is black at the top and red at the bottom – indeed quite the rainbow bird!
Plump, majestically dignified and incredibly cute, the Cuban Tody is, thankfully, the least vulnerable of all in this list, classified as “Least Concern” by IUCN which means you’d have to have the most terrible luck not to spot one. It also happens to be a year-round resident of some areas of Cuba and offshore keys which ensures reliable visibility all-year-long. This sturdy, highly adaptable species is a habitat generalis and as such it has been found to live in a variety of areas, ranging from coastal regions to evergreen forests, dry lowlands as well as close to rivers and streams. Despite all these many advantages to finding one, spotting a Cuban tody is not entirely without difficulty, mostly because of its small size and especially in dense underbrush when they’re harder to spot yet almost always heard.
Often found in pairs, these birds like to stay put and don’t fly a lot or for long stretches, so you’re most likely to catch sight of them sitting on a tree branch, making their amusingly distinctive sounds. When perched they often make a peculiar “tot-tot-tot” sound, but the most characteristic of all if the “ppprrreee-pppprrreee” sound that has earned it one of its names in Spanish (“Pedorrera” literally means “farting sound”). During display fights they also emit a whirring sound that comes from the rapid flapping of the wings.
Where and how to spot them - As explained earlier the presence of the Cuban Tody is widespread across the island and found in a variety of biomes. From wooded and semi-wooded areas to xeric regions, thickets, dry and wet forests, pinewoods, secondary vegetation and plantations. It’s found at all elevations and tends to nest in areas with clay embankments. They also famously inhabit in areas of coastal vegetation and the Isle of Youth.
Once upon a time you would have likely spotted these beautiful, vivacious birds pretty much anywhere there were trees or a bit of foliage without much difficulty. Nowadays, the brightly coloured and spirited Cuban Parakeet (Psittacara euops) has been listed as vulnerable due to a combination of loss of habitat, trapping for the cage-bird trade (they can be easily domesticated, like to interact with humans, can form strong bonds with owners and imitate a variety of sounds) and because of their overpopulation in some parts of Cuba, once upon a time they were considered crop pests and as such culled down by farmers.
Locally known by its Taino name of “Catey”, the Cuban parakeet is worthy of admiration and there are a few selected places in Cuba where populations of them continue to thrive. They measure 27 to 28 cm from beak to tail, with males being slightly larger than their females counterparts, their bodies are bright green throughout most of the body with spots of red here and there, especially in the wings, though there is no discernible pattern that applies to all. The younger they are the less bright with very little red if at all and they reach maturity around three years after birth.
Surprisingly, given their charm and wit, not much is written about the Cuban Parakeet, perhaps because they once were so common and now that they are at their most vulnerable they are seen by many as household pets. The illicit trade for the birdcage trade sadly continues and means little chicks are taken away when they are only a few days old to be trained by hand. True that they can indeed become loving pets but their place is in the wild and given the difficulty in breeding them in captivity, now more than ever the situation calls for collective responsibility.
One of peculiarities of the Cuban Parakeet is the fact that in the wild they mate for life with one special partner, next to whom they spend all of their time. It´s a known fact that when one of the two dies, the other quickly follows (the common saying is that they die of a heartbreak). Now, didn´t that make you go “aww”). Unlike other bird species they are not sexually dimorphic (which means you can´t easily tell whether you are looking at a male or female specimen) and live relatively long lives of about 25 years.
Cateys have a seemingly smiling gesture that makes them instantly adorable. They feed on fruits and seeds, are fast fliers and emit sounds during flight.
Where to find them - They are endemic to Cuba only and were completely extirpated from the Isle of Youth after 1900 so you´ll only find them in certain parts of mainland Cuba, namely in the protected Cienaga de Zapata biosphere reserve, in some parts of the Escambray mountain range in eastern Cuba and in Camaguey´s Najasa mountains. Populations in the wild are estimated to be around 1,300 in number and if you are a determined birdwatcher you might come across one in woodland edges and undisturbed forests. They live in isolated inland areas that are often difficult to access, so this one is among the hardest to spot. However, you´ll know when you see one as their bright green plumes with red spots are unmistakable as is the white band around its eyes.
The rarest of them all, this beautiful Cuban raptor is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN and was even thought to be extinguished for quite some time given the rarity of its sightings and the long periods of time it remained unseen. Thankfully, it has all but disappeared but its survival is significantly threatened which makes it a very difficult bird to spot, so don’t count on its sighting on a birdwatching trip to Cuba.
Locally known as “gavilan caguarero” this beautiful and rare bird once enjoyed healthy population sin the Cuban countryside, especially in the island’s eastern mountain ranges. Regrettably, it was easily hunted down by farmers due to their aversion to raptor species (as they pose a danger to their flock of domestic fowls), and given they’re not timid with humans they were extremely vulnerable and easy to catch. Another threat to their survival of the vast consumption of land snails by free-roaming pigs in wild areas, a staple of the Cuban Kite’s diet.
Cuban kites (Chondrohierax wilsonii) are regal-looking birds with a strong, prominent beak shaped like a hook (similar to parrots’) that’s large in proportion to its size and sometimes dark blue in the tip. Its belly is a striped variation of white, black and white with some orange undertones while its legs are yellow to pale orange. The head, wings and back are coloured light to dark grey while its iris is bright yellow. The cheeks are usually pale orange too. It measures around 37 cm from head to foot and the colouring varies slightly from male to female. They live and often travel in pairs, choosing habitats close to rivers and near forests that are no higher than 500 metres above sea level.
Where to spot it - Sadly, this one will prove the hardest to spot as its critically endangered due to loss of habitat, hunting and diet scarcity. It was once abundant in the Cienaga de Zapata peninsula and Cienfuegos but is now confined to Cuba’s eastern mountainous area. In recent years its populations have been reduced to a small region between Moa and Baracoa, and quite possibly in other parts of Holguin and Guantanamo. It’s Cuba’s rarest raptor and you’ll be the luckiest person on earth to spot one, even if for just a second.
If you can spare the time…here are the other five!
Beyond the top five of Cuba’s most eye-catching, rare and memorable bird species there are quite a few more endemic beauties you shouldn’t overlook on a birdwatching trip to Cuba and in fact should endeavour to see if you can.
Blue-headed quail-dove – one of my favourites in this list due to its colouring and flamboyant appearance, this beautifully plump dove is a phenomenon of its own. Not only is it endemic to Cuba, but it belongs to a Columbidae family of which it is the only specie (its subfamily is Starnoenadinae and the genus Starnoenas). It’s listed as threatened by the IUCN list in the category of “endangered” but with a bit of luck it might not be that hard to come across one. Its most eye-catching feature is also part of its name - the bright blue crown on the head. Two black stripes on either side of the head cover the eyes, the small beak is bright red, a white lineal marking covers the chin, and below it a black gorget with small blue markings on the side make it stand out even more. The rest of the body is cinnamon brown. It’s mostly found on the forest floor, where it forages for berries, seeds and snails and is generally found in pairs, though larger populations have been spotted. There are good numbers of the “Paloma Perdiz Cubana” in Pinar del Rio (namely in Guanahacabibes and La Guira) and also near the Zapata swamp.
Grey-fronted quail-dove – yet another beautiful bird in the Columbidae pigeon family, this blue-grey bird, locally known as “camao” or “azulona” (Geotrygon caniceps) is a delight to view. Found in larger numbers than its relative above, it shouldn’t be too hard to feast your eyes on one of these winged creatures, yet you should pat yourself on the back for the privilege. This one-of-a-kind dove was once considered a subspecies of the grey-headed quail-dove but is now a species in its own right (along with the white-fronted quail-dove endemic to Hispaniola), so do not confuse the two! It’s endemic to Cuba only, measures close to 28 cm in length and is found in moist lowland forests, swamps and plantations. The colouring is remarkable and varied, with some violet hues that get darker in the tail, wine red undertones in the upper part of the back and chest and iridescent tones of green and purple. Most of the back is a violet-blue colour, towards the rump and the tail’s plumage the colour is a dark deep blue. Females are less showy, with colours that are not as bright or iridescent. They live in dense, moist, lowland forests, close to swamps or mountains. It’s easier to spot some areas of the Cienaga de Zapata and Sierra del Rosario, although they have been sighted in Remedios, Guantanamo and Pinar del Rio’s Sierra de los Organos.
Zapata Rail – the first in this list to be an aquatic bird, endemic not only to Cuba but to a very precise area of the Cienaga de Zapata, the critically endangered Zapata rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai), locally referred to as “gallinuela de Santo Tomas” is one of the rarest sights in Cuba’s avifauna. It was only discovered in 1926 by a Spanish naturist and it’s the only member in the Cyanolimnas monotypic genus.
Because it’s native to such a restricted area in Cuba, not much is known about is diet or reproductive behaviour, with its nest having only been spotted once by American ornithologist, James Bond. The only Cuban rail of its kind, the Zapata rail is medium-sized (around 30 cm long) and dark, with its upper parts best described as olive brown in colour, a short tail that’s white on the bottom, a thick, compact body and plumage that ranges from white to grey and light brown on the chest and belly. The beak is green with red at the base, the legs are reddish and the wings are brown and very short, making it a flightless bird. It resides in the fragile and fiercely protected ecosystem of the Zapata Swamp, more precisely in its north section, between Peralta and Hato de Jicarita.
Cuban pygmy owl – The Cuban “Siju platanero” or “sijucito” as it’s also known in the island, is the smallest, cutest of all the owls in Cuba and the Greater Antilles. Endemic to all of the Cuban archipelago this is one of the most easily and frequently observed, so you should have no trouble spotting one, except perhaps for the fact that this is a nocturnal bird of prey which may make it slightly more challenging to sight in daylight but not terribly difficult either. They have been known to be diurnal hunters too. During mating season Cuban pygmy owls (Glaucidium siju) tend to nest inside abandoned woodpecker holes in palm trees and their peculiar “cu-cu-cu-se-se-si-si” sound (higher pitched at the end) makes them easily identifiable. The “platanero” part of its Cuban name refers to the fact that Cuban pygmy owls are known to be often found in banana plantations, not because they feed off the fruit but because they like to hunt there. Measuring no more than 18.5 cm in length, with females being a centimetre or so larger than males, this cute bird can do a 180-degree turn of its head and given the curious fact that it has two black spots on its back that look like fake eyes, you may not instantly know whether its facing you or not!
West Indian Woodpecker – known locally as Carpintero Jabado (Melanerpes superciliaris) this one is the only one on the list to not be exclusive to Cuba but also found in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. It´s bright red stripe on the back of its head (that looks almost like a hair band) and its stripey white and black back and tail make it stand out and be easily spotted. It´s not under threat and can be found in a multitude of areas around the Cuban archipelago. But if you want to catch sight of the most special of them all, there are four recognised sub-species endemic to Cuba only: the M. s. supercilliaris found in Cayo Cantiles and areas of mainland, the M. s. murceus native to the Isle of Youth, the M.S. florentinoi endemic to Cayo Largo and the M. s. sanfelipensis found in Cayo Real. Now that´s quite a few places to check out!
One more - the rarest of them all
The once abundant Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, known in Spanish as “carpintero real” (Campephilus principalis bairdii) is an allegedly extinct Cuban subspecies of the ivory-billed woodpecker, and I say “alleged” because whether it has been officially considered extinct with the last official sighting of a specimen dating back to 1987, a few Cuban peasants have sworn to have either seen it or heard it in recent years. Different claims maintain it was seen both in 2004 2008 and another witness says it was heard in 2011. In 2016 two American ornithologists (Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink) embarked on a mission to spot this elusive, possibly extinct bird, but had no luck. Yet Cuban dwellers in this rural part of Cuba don´t give up hope, many are certain the Carpintero Real is indeed playing hide-and-seek, but not extinct. If you want to give it a try at finding the last specimen alive, the last alleged sightings have been confined to the Sierra de los Farallones in Moa, a town in the Granma province. There is also the remote possibility of finding one in the highest reaches of the Sierra Maestra mountain range and elsewhere in Cuba some specimens might survive given the fact that about 80 per cent of suitable habitat areas in Cuba have yet to be searched.Maybe you could be the lucky tourist who breaks headlines around the world by spotting the so-called ghost bird of Cuba´s eastern countryside.