I think motmot is a great name for an animal. I love the name, but I think these birds are a misnamed – to me it sounds like motmots should be cute, fluffy little things, but this isn’t the case. No, these birds are quite stunning animals, with bright colouration and big tails. Motmots deserve a grander name than what they’ve got. Still, they aren’t the worst named species on this blog.

A motmot showing off its tail feathers. Image by Stephen Turner, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Motmots make up the family Momotidae, which contains fourteen species in six genera. They are spread through the tropical regions of Central and South America, with the greatest number of species found in Central America. They prefer wooded areas, and nest in tunnels in river banks.

Motmots are very colourful birds, with different species having varying amounts of blues, greens, reds and yellows. Their bills are fairly large, though not nearly as big as those of their relatives, the kingfishers. One of the most striking features of motmots is their long tails, which in most species have paddle-like tips. This tail shape is not entirely natural — in several species the feathers on the shaft of the tail are quite weak, and so fall off during preening, creating this distinctive shape.

These tails are used for a bit of a strange purpose; a motmot will wag its tail back and forth when a predator is nearby. This lets the predator know that the motmot is aware of the threat, saving both the predator and motmot time and energy, since the predator will likely not chase the motmot, and thus the bird will not have to flee.

A tody motmot, one of the only species that does not have a large flashy tail. Image by Mdf, by CC BY-SA 3.0

A second purpose of motmots’ fancy tails is thought to be for attracting mates, as males have slightly larger tails than females. Pair bonds in motmots can last several years, so those tails must look good. As I mentioned earlier, motmots nest in river banks, digging burrows that can be up to 2.4 meters long. Some species will nest in colonies, with up to 40 pairs nesting in the same area. Females lay around four eggs, which hatch in 20 days. Both parents care for the young, who leave the nest a month after hatching.

While motmots might not be the furballs I pictured them as, they are still pretty wonderful birds. They are most certainly prettier than what I imagined!

Artist’s rendering of what a motmot should look like. (The artist is me)

Cover image by By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Rufous Motmot, CC BY 2.0