"Weeee, PEE-ahhh!" Visitors walking through the Allegheny Commons park near the National Aviary have probably heard this loud exotic call coming from our Wetlands exhibit. It's the call of the screaming piha, one of the loudest songbirds in the world. Screaming pihas belong to a group of birds known as contingas.
Contingas are a diverse group of songbirds from Central and South America. Most are frugivores, or fruit-eaters. They play an important role in rain forest ecosystems as seed dispersers, and many have the words berryeater, fruiteater or fruitcrow as part of their common names. After gorging on fruits, most contingas do something unusual -- they regurgitate the seeds. The seeds fall to the ground far away from the parent plant, allowing new plants to grow and thrive in other parts of the rain forest.
Many contingas have brilliant plumage. The spangled continga has beautiful turquoise feathers and a deep-red throat. The purple-throated fruitcrow has a bright purple-red throat against a shiny black body. But not all contingas are brightly colored. The screaming piha is a small gray continga of the Amazon rain forest. But what it lacks in plumage, it makes up for in vocalization. Its explosive call is so loud and exotic that it is commonly dubbed into the soundtracks of jungle movies.
The call is made by the male. Several males will band together in small groups called leks, each bird calling out to all females within earshot. Usually, there are 4-10 males in a lek, but some leks have been as large as 30 birds.
Apart from the lek, screaming pihas are loners. This solitary existence begins in the nest -- typically screaming pihas lay only one egg per clutch, with the nestling growing up as an only child.
Of the roughly 60 species of contingas in the world, the National Aviary is home to three: the spangled continga and purple-throated fruitcrow in our Tropical Forest, and the screaming piha in our Wetlands. Billboards around Pittsburgh this month will showcase the Aviary's rockin', cool and exotic birds. See them -- and hear them -- up close this summer at the National Aviary.
-- By Robert Mulvihill, National Aviary ornithologist