Hunting For A Rare Bird In The Colombian Jungle: The Cock-Of-The-Rock

The naturalist Leo E. Miller was a participant in the famed Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition of 1913–1914 that explored Brazil’s unknown Rio da Duvida.  He also had a distinguished career exploring the wilds of many different South American countries and cataloging various species of animal life; he would later record these experiences with the publication in 1918 of In the Wilds of South America.  

In 1914, Miller found himself in Colombia.  One of his goals was to make contact with an exceedingly rare bird called the “cock-of-the-rock” (rupicola rupicola).  It is a bright orange or red bird about which very little was then known.  Part of the reason was the fact that its nesting places were very difficult to reach:  it preferred rocky outcrops high above the ground that could not be reached by other animals.  There are two known species of this bird, one of which (the Andean cock-of-the-rock) is the national bird of Peru.  Anyone wanting to collect a living specimen would almost always have to risk a fatal plunge into a gorge.

What awaits the seeker of adventure in such arduous jungle locations?  Miller’s evocative prose gives us a very clear picture.  Hardships activate the senses, test the mettle, and challenge us to expand the outer reaches of our knowledge:

In these jungles one hears the hoarse cough of the jaguar and the scream of long-tailed, multicolored macaws as they fly two by two overhead; the extraordinary chorus of frogs and insects may lull the weary senses to sleep at night fall, but the dismal roar of howling monkeys is sure to awaken one at dawn.

To start at the sudden, long-drawn hiss of a boa or the lightning-like thrust of the terrible bushmaster, the largest of poisonous snakes, and a creature so deadly that a man may die within ten minutes after the fatal stroke, and to shudder as the wild, insane cackle of the wood-rails shatters the brooding silence of the forest, are merely incidents of the explorer’s every-day life; and so, too, are visits to deep lagoons teeming with crocodiles, cannibal fishes, and myriads of water-fowl; lengthy sojourns in gloomy forests where orchids droop from moss-draped branches, brilliant butterflies shimmer in the subdued light, and curious animals live in the eternal shadows; and ascents of the stupendous mountain ranges where condors soar majestically above the ruins of Incan greatness.

In short, the expeditions recorded [here] lead through remote wilderness where savage peoples and little-known animals spend their lives in stealth and vigilance, all oblivious of the existence of an outer world.

When in Colombia he decided to collect a specimen of the cock-of-the-rock.  Here he describes his sojourn:

On my fourth visit to Popayan we had to remain in the city the greater part of a week, arranging for the continuation of our journey across the Central Andes to the head waters of the Magdalena. Hereafter we were to travel on foot, partly due to the fact that some of the trails were impassable, both to riding and pack animals, and partly to enable us to be in a position better to study the wild life of the region we traversed. I was accompanied on this particular expedition by Doctor Allen and Mr. J. T. Lloyd, of Cornell University…

The first night from Almaguer was passed at an old mill on the banks of the Caquiona, built by monks many years ago. They had thoughtfully provided a large room to house the Indians who formerly came to have their wheat and corn ground, even to the extent of providing rough bunks; and just outside stood a massive stocks, doubtless also provided for the use of the Indians, but it must have detracted somewhat from the effect of the hospitality extended by the good monks…

The next day we passed San Sebastian, the last settlement, and climbed steadily higher toward the cold, bleak paramo that marks the dividing-line between the Cauca and the Magdalena. After four days we reached the marvellous Valle de las Papas, just below the mist-enshrouded paramo, and took refuge in the pretentious house of old Pedro, a full-blooded Andaquia, while preparing for our final dash across the great barrier.

Eventually, Miller and his party made for the high grounds, and began to scale the elevations.  The fatigue of the trek was alleviated by corn meal and coca leaves:

After a short, steep climb we were out on the bleak paramo, in the midst of the rain, hail, and mist. The wind blew a gale and the cold was intense. Through an occasional break in the banks of fog we had glimpses of the valley on each side filled with dense clumps of frailejones. We continued on in the face of the blinding storm for several hours, but with the coming of darkness the trail left the wind-swept zone and started downward, winding along the canyon of the Magdalena; in the failing light the scenery was bewitchingly beautiful. High, rugged peaks, sheer cliffs, and black masses of forest towered above the sparkling stream that bounded from rock to rock in a succession of falls.

Allen and Lloyd had gone on ahead, and after dark I came upon them camped in a unique spot. They had thrown their blankets on a ledge in the face of a cliff that towered several hundred feet above them. A tiny waterfall dashed over the edge of the precipice, cleared the ledge, and joined the greater torrent below. The regular night’s stopping-place is known as Santa Marta, which the Indians reached at nine that night. Immediately after arriving at the camping site the porters boiled corn-meal, which they ate with brown sugar.

Each man had brought a sheepskin to use as a bed, and these were dried beside the fire while their food was cooking. Before starting in the morning they had another meal of mush and sugar. During the grueling day their mouths were kept well filled with coca and lime, and the apparent amount of sustenance and endurance derived from the herb is extraordinary; nor does it seem to have any bad after effect, though in Almaguer I saw a number of shaky old women with bloodshot eyes and blackened lips and teeth, said to be due to the result of excessive indulgence in coca.

Near the villages of Santa Barbara and San Augustin, they continued their journey into the steaming jungles.  After a bit more traveling, he and his party came to the areas inhabited by the cock-of-the-rock.  Only one who has sought the objects of nature’s beauty in their natural habitats can relate to the breathless excitement conveyed by the passage below:

The slopes of the mountains and ravines are covered with a dense palm jungle, the trees laden with bunches of purple berries. It is in places such as these that the cock-of-the-rock spends its existence. After several weeks of the most strenuous work our efforts were rewarded: we came suddenly upon a flock of male birds in the top of a palm, the bright scarlet color of the wonderful creatures flaming among the deepgreen fronds in a dazzling manner as they flitted about, and with outstretched necks and raucous “eur-rr-ks” surveyed the disturbers of their time-honored solitude.

We were the first human beings to penetrate their jungle fastness and excited curiosity rather than fear. The mere sight of these beautiful birds in their wild surroundings was worth all the discomforts of the long journey. In size they are no larger than domestic pigeons, but the color is of a most intense and brilliant scarlet, with wings and tail of black; the upper wing-coverts are of a light shade of gray, and the eyes and feet are golden yellow; a flat crest an inch and a half high completely covers the head and hides the yellow bill. The female is of a dull shade of brown. We wanted to find their nests and to study their home life, of which little was known; also to secure material for the museum group.

With the aid of Indians, and ropes made of creepers, we began to explore the face of the cliffs, some of which were a hundred feet high. On many of the steep slopes the palms grew so close together that we utilized them as ladders. As it rained nearly every day the footholds were very slippery, and many times one or an other of the party fell, being saved from being dashed on the rocks far below only by the rope that bound us together. One day, as we crept along slowly and painfully, we flushed a bird of sombre brown from a great boulder that rose from the centre of the stream.

We waited breathlessly while she fluttered about in the palms and then returned to the rock. She flew many times back and forth, carrying food in her bill, and at last I discerned a dark object against the face of the rock upon which the bird centred her attention. There was no longer cause for concealment, so we moved to the edge of the torrent and saw the grass and mud nest plastered against the face of the rock; below raged a whirlpool, and on each side there was a waterfall. A more inaccessible spot could not have been chosen by the bird, whose haunts had never been violated.

But considerable danger was involved in actually collecting a specimen.  Miller continues his fascinating account:

After a consultation the Indians decided to build a raft, and accordingly cut down trees and lashed the trunks to gether, but no sooner had the craft been launched than it was caught by the raging swirl and spun about until the creepers parted and we found ourselves struggling in the whirlpool. A great liana which had been securely tied to the raft and fastened on the bank swept past, and this proved to be our salvation.

A tall tree was now felled, and its course so directed that the top should fall across the inaccessible rock island, but it fell several yards short and again we were outwitted. The sun was now directly overhead, and the fierce rays entered the narrow confines of the canyon so that it was stiflingly hot. Angry peals of thunder warned us of the approaching storm, and red howling monkeys, disturbed from their midday rest, roared dismally.

Above, the river flowed like a greenish stream of molten glass; below, it dashed through the gorge with a dull roar, and to the towering boulder in the centre clung a treasure, to possess which men had risked their lives; but on the very verge of success we seemed likely to fail. Even the Indians, pioneers of the jungle, shook their heads doubtfully and wanted to return.

We tried the only remaining resource. With poles and lines two of the Indians and myself picked our way to a number of small rocks that jutted out of the angry flood at the very mouth of the gorge. The other Indian spliced to gether joints of slender bamboo and climbed out into the branch of the fallen tree which had lodged against some rocks. From this precarious position he made repeated thrusts at the nest; finally it fell and began its maddening career in the whirlpool.

Around it went, many times, and then shot straight for the gorge, swerving toward the rock on which Juan stood. As we shouted encouragement Juan dived. In spite of the fact that he was a powerful swimmer we doubted if we should ever see him again, but after what seemed minutes he reappeared, battling furiously with the flood that sought to sweep him into the maelstrom. We threw him a line and dragged him ashore. In his mouth he held the precious nest, a young bird, drowned, still clinging to the grass lining.

Later, and under circumstances hardly less thrilling, we found other birds and nests with both eggs and young, but we took only those that were absolutely necessary. The others, and there were many, we left to the eternal mystery of the wilderness, to dance in the shadows and to woo their mates beside the rushing waters; to rear their young and to lead the life that was intended for them from the beginning.

So it is with the quest for knowledge.  Man is hypnotized by both nature’s beguiling beauty and by the allurements of knowledge, and he will stop at nothing short of death to taste both of them.  And it is among the noblest aspects of his character that, no matter the obstacle or obstruction, he seeks a deeper understanding of other forms of life in order to discern his own place in this churning maelstrom of Existence.

 

Read more in On Duties.

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