A flash of bright blue and chestnut in the forest, a soft whooping call, and lo and behold, an exotic bird appears perched on a branch above you. Have you seen this bird? Yucatán’s very own bird of paradise, the turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), also known as the clock bird, is often spotted near jungle cenotes or sinkholes where it nests in the limestone walls and at archaeological sites such as Chichén Itzá and Uxmal . Sightings are also frequent in the Riviera Maya, for example at the Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden in Puerto Morelos, at Cobá and Punta Laguna, Muyil in the northern part of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and even in the jungle lining the road to The Royal Haciendas.
The motmot owes its name of clock bird to its disc-shaped tail feathers, which resemble the pendulums on a grandfather clock. The resemblance is further heightened by the fact that the bird actually wags its tail back and forth, possibly as a way of communicating with other motmots or as a courtship ritual.
Motmots in Mayan Legend
The motmot’s Mayan name is toh, and it features in local legend and lore. According to one story, the motmot liked to meet his fellow royal birds and spend the day telling stories and feasting on insects while other birds were working. He was such a beautiful creature and so proud of his glossy tail and plumage that it made him arrogant and overbearing.
One afternoon, when black clouds were massing on the horizon heralding the approach of a storm, Oc, the king vulture summoned all the birds to a meeting and they decided to build themselves a shelter. Chujut the woodpecker, Panchel the toucan, Mox the parrot and Xtut collected timber, Baax the chachalaca and Cutz the wild turkey carried the heaviest branches and the hummingbirds collected grass, herbs and leaves for the roof. Other birds gathered fruit and seeds to tide them over the storm. Only the motmot refused to help, saying that he was an aristocrat, not a worker.
When the storm burst, the motmot found a crack in a stone wall that he thought would be a good place to hide. He crept in and went to sleep without noticing that his elegant long tail was still out in the open.
Much later, the motmot woke up and emerged from his shelter to sing in the sun like the other birds. He was astonished to find that all that was left of his beloved tail were two bedraggled and naked barbs with a small clump of feathers at the end. The wind and water had done their worst. Horrified, realized what a fool he had been. Pride soon got the better of him and he decided to shun his former companions for fear that they would mock him. He flew off into the depths of the forest and dug a hole where he hid until this very day. He still keeps to himself; perching on branches overlooking cenotes where he swings his long tail from side to side incessantly like the pendulum on a clock.