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3.6 Cracids

3.6.1 Penelope (guans)
3.6.2 Crax (sensu lato) (curassows)

The Cracidae Family are primitive Gallinaceae found only in the neotropics. They merit special attention as the major subsistence game birds in forest areas. This is particularly true of the guans (genus Penelope) and curassows (genus Crax, sensu lato). The family includes 11 genera and a total of 44 species, and ranges from Mexico to Uruguay and northern Argentina.

These are medium-sized or large birds with dark plumage, a long tail and strong beaks and claws. They are primarily frugivores, gregarious, noisy and sedentary. They inhabit primary moist forest from sea level up to 3 500 m and more, except the chachalacas (genus Ortalis) which are found in deciduous forests, brushland and secondary vegetation (18, 153, 186, 519). Deforestation has a strong impact on these strictly forest-dwelling birds, with species such as Penelope albipennis, Pipile jacutinga, Oreophasis derbianus, Mitu mini mitu, Pauxi pauxi and Crax blumenbachii seriously imperiled (19, 454, 536, 571). All cracids are game birds, but numerically speaking, guans and currasows head the list. Chachalacas are less preferred but they do adapt better to modified environments, including urban environments, and together with Pipile spp, they rank third in importance.

3.6.1 Penelope (guans)

Local names: Jacu, jaucucaca (Brazil), marail (Suriname), pava, pava de monte (name used from Mexico to Argentina), pucacunga (Peru).

Geographical distribution and variation: Guans are found from tropical Mexico to Uruguay and northern Argentina. The 15 species with the broadest range include Penelope purpurascens (Mexico to northern Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela), P. jacquacu (very wide range in Amazonia), P. marail (southeastern Venezuela, Guianas and northeastern Brazil), P. superciliaris (wide range in Brazil, southern Amazonia and Madeira to Paraguay), P. obscura (southern Brazil, Uruguay and northern Argentina) and P. montagni (Andes from Venezuela to Argentina) (59, 153, 186).

Elevational range: From sea level to over 3 500 m (P. montagni) (153).

Size and weight: Size and weight vary by species from a total length of 60 cm and a weight of 750 g (P. montagni cf. Delacour and Amadon - 153), to 90 cm and 1 620-2 430 g (P. purpurascens cf. 383). P. jacquacu. probably the most intensively hunted species in Amazonia, weighs about 1 500 g.

Habitat: All guans are strictly forest-dwellers, preferring wet, high, primary forest from the tropical belt to the Andean forests (18, 70, 215, 232, 383).

Abundance: Guan are apparently fairly abundant in undisturbed habitats, to judge from the hunting records and literature (153, 336, 383, 519), but scarce in environmentally modified areas where they are under steady hunting pressure.

Behaviour: Penelope live in pairs or small groups in the treetops but may occasionally be seen in the middle storeys or feeding in the underbrush. They are most active in the morning and afternoon. Relatively shy, when detected they do not fly far but try to hide in the high, leafy treetops (153, 186, 232).

Feeding habits: Guan feed on various fruits and soft berries, buds, flowers, young leaves, insects and molluscs and occasionally small vertebrates (153, 186).

Reproduction: Guan are monogamous and territorial, mating at the onset of the rainy season, usually March-July north of the equator. They build a simple nest in the trees and generally lay a clutch of three eggs which are incubated by the female for 24-28 days. The precocious chicks, fed by the male and female both, reach adult size in four months and sexual maturity in two years and can reproduce up to the age of 20 (453).

Hunting: Guans top the list of bird kills for subsistence hunting in forest areas, particularly by indigenous hunters. The hunters stalk them along the forest trails in the early morning or late afternoon, aided by the sound of falling fruit when the birds are feeding and their calls. People say that the rustle of footsteps through dry leaf litter is a problem when hunting guan in the dry season (519). Often enough, several birds in a flock can be taken at once, particularly with the bow and arrow, though a shotgun is more effective (93).

Products: The meat, though rather tough and dark, is a common food, providing a steady though not very abundant addition to rural diets, especially in indigenous communities (Table 4).

Management: The constantly hunted guan populations are shrinking or disappearing (18, 67, 336, 383), but may persist providing their habitat remains undisturbed. The effectiveness of the protectionist measures enacted in various countries is very much open to question given the fact that guans are a subsistence hunting target. The cost of the bullets compared to the size of the bird may be a more important restriction. In any case, effective hunting restrictions in areas accessible to non-indigenous hunters are definitely required, as guan do not tolerate heavy extraction rates, are sensitive to environmental modification and have quite a low reproductive capacity.

3.6.2 Crax (sensu lato) (curassows)

Local names: Hocofaisán (Mexico, muití (Argentina), mutum (Brazil), paují (Venezuela), paujil, piuri (Colombia, Peru), pavón (Central America, Ecuador), powisi (Suriname).

Geographical distribution and variation: Curassows range from southeastern Mexico to southern Brazil, Paraguay and the northern tip of Argentina. Including the genera Crax, Mitu and Pauxi (59, 186, 389) (which Delacour and Amadon treat as subgenera (153)) they total 12 species, of which the widest-ranging are Crax rubra (southern Mexico to western Ecuador), C. daubentoni (northern Venezuela), C. alector (Guianas, northern Amazonia), C. globulosa (southwestern Amazonia), C. fasciolata (central-western Brazil to Paraguay), Mitu tomentosa, widely distributed in southern Amazonia in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru (59, 153).

Elevational range: These are generally lowland species but Pauxi pauxi may be found as high as 2 000 m (232).

Size and weight: Curassows are tropical America's most corpulent game bird. Crax rubra males can be as tall as 93 cm and weigh 4 300-4 800 g; on the average females weigh in at about 500 g less. Other Crax species weigh 2 500 and 400 g, depending on the species and sex; Mitu ranges from 2 000-3 800 g (153, 336, 383).

Habitat: Primary moist and fringing forests, usually in the tropical belt, except Pauxi which typically inhabits montane forests (18, 67, 153, 336).

Abundance: Like guans, curassows seem quite abundant in undisturbed wild areas (519, 573), but are scarce or non-existent in modified environments (18, 67, 153, 186, 336).

Behaviour: Curassows live in pairs or family groups. They spend less time in the trees than guans, frequently feeding in the underbrush and may walk long distances to reach bodies of drinking-water. Shy and cautious, they seek protection in the treetops when disturbed. During the mating season, particularly, their presence is revealed by the characteristic call "puji puji" (67, 153, 186, 232, 383).

Feeding habits: Curassows feed primarily on fruits and seeds, but they can apparently handle harder and bulkier food than guans, being bigger with tougher gizzards. They also eat buds, new leaves, insects, molluscs, etc. (18, 153, 232, 336, 383).

Reproduction: According to the information available, curassows are monogamous and territorial, breeding once a year between April and July (18, 232, 383). They nest in the trees at various heights, the female laying two large eggs which she then incubates for 30-36 days depending on the species (186, 232). The precocious chicks soon leave the nest, having been fed by both parents, and can feed themselves very early and fly at the age of 20 days (485).

Hunting: Curassows are the prize tropical forest game bird. They are stalked in the underbrush along the forest trails, hunted from canoes along rivers and located by their calls, or hunters may lurk near their drinking, eating or resting places (32, 67, 519).

Products: Curassow meat is a preferred and major item in the diet of both indigenous peoples and campesinos (Tables 4 and 9). The high-quality meat and size of the bird also make it very attractive to sport hunters.

Management: Curassows are apparently even more vulnerable to habitat modification and hunting pressure than guans, and their situation is listed as critical in many areas (18, 32, 67, 153, 186, 336, 383). Current extraction rates are clearly intolerable for curassow populations, and managing them as an exploitable resource is definitely hindered by: 1) their habitat requirements, i.e. climax forests, 2) their low reproductive capacity, 3) vulnerability due to their large size, habit of frequenting the underbrush and their very audible calls, 4) the heavy demand by different types of hunters and, 5) the lack of effective protection measures in large forest areas. Priority must be given to controlling hunting pressure and guaranteeing curassow survival by instituting truly protected areas with special status.

Captive breeding: The easily tamed curassows and other cracids are often seen in aviaries and barnyards. Captive breeding is a problem, however (67, 153), and although some positive results have been reported (186, 432), captive breeding can only be a stopgap emergency measure to maintain in captivity certain species that are highly endangered in their wild habitats. Recently (February 1988), the Second International Symposium on the Biology and Conservation of the Cracidae Family was held in Caracas, where major breakthroughs were reported in what we now know about these birds. Of particular importance was the as-yet-unpublished research of Strahl and Silva in Venezuela.

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