Turacos are a fairly common African bird and are part of the Musophagidae family. The Musophagidae (literally ‘banana-eaters’), or turacos, includes plantain-eaters and go-away-birds. In southern Africa both turacos and go-away-birds are commonly known as louries.
They are semi-zygodactylous – the fourth (outer) toe can be switched back and forth.The second and third toes, which always point forward, are conjoined in some species. Musophagids often have prominent crests and long tails; the turacos are noted for peculiar and unique pigments giving them their bright green and red feathers.
The plumage of go-away-birds and plantain-eaters is mainly grey and white. The turacos on the other hand are brightly coloured birds, usually blue, green or purple. The green colour in turacos comes from turacoverdin, the only true green pigment in birds known to date.
Other ‘greens’ in bird colours result from a yellow pigment such as some carotenoid, combined with the prismatic physical structure of the feather itself which scatters the light in a particular way and giving a blue colour. Turacos typically have brilliantly colored red flight feathers or bright red markings around the eyes and the crest of the head.
Turacos have the only truly green pigment known in birds. The red underwings have a similar story: turacos are the only birds to have the true red pigment turacin. Their feathers have traditionally been used as a status symbol for native African tribe leaders.
Turacos flight is weak, but they run quickly through the tree canopy. They feed mostly on fruits and to a lesser extent on leaves, buds, and flowers, occasionally taking small insects, snails, and slugs. As their name suggests, turacos enjoy bananas and can become so tame as to be hand-fed. They are also partial to grapes and pawpaw (papaya).
Most turacos are medium-sized birds, an exception being the large Great Blue Turaco, with long tails and short, rounded wings. Their flight is weak, but they are strong climbers and are able to move nimbly on branches and through vegetation. Juveniles have claws on the wings that help them climb.
They are gregarious birds that do not migrate but move in family groups of up to ten. Many species are noisy, with the go-away-birds being especially noted for their piercing alarm calls, which alert other fauna to the presence of predators or hunters; their common name refers to this.
Turacos become more vocal and more territorial during mating season. Six to twenty birds may live in a family group, their territory comprised of several fruiting trees. Some may form small territorial groups of a single mating pair, however. Either way, when it’s time for the mating season to begin and the courtship displays begin, Turacos are not shy about making themselves known!
When they finally do find Ms. Right, they build a nest together that looks like a platform made of dry sticks, usually high in a leafy tree and over water, if possible. Females will typically lay 2 eggs (blue, naturally!) and parents take turns incubating them for about a month. They also co-parent once the chicks arrive, and one or the other stays with them 24 hours a day, and about 2 months later the hatchlings start making their way out of the nest and practicing their short flights.
Turacos, in general, are shy, and typically do not come down to ground level except to drink or bathe. However, even in the wild, they can become so tame with prolonged exposure to humans that they can actually be fed by hand. They are a species that is found in Zoos around the world, because they are a “show” bird, due to their brilliantly colored plumage and ability to become docile around humans.
Turaco does not have many natural enemies aside from humans. Although many zoos take great care of them, and they can have a positive relationship with humans, man’s activity in their natural habitat – if left unchecked, can start to have a devastating effect on their population. Deforestation threatens thousands of species worldwide, and a tree-dwelling flightless bird like the turaco and its cousins would be particularly vulnerable. Their habitats have already started to decline and the damage continues to spread.
Although they are not hunted in every country for their meat, they are sought after by trappers looking to sell them in the trade market. Left unchecked, these factors could begin to adversely affect their numbers across the continent. Currently, they are considered “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
According to the IOC there are 23 species in this family, which are:
Great Blue Turaco Corythaeola cristata
Guinea Turaco Tauraco persa
Livingstone’s Turaco Tauraco livingstonii
Schalow’s Turaco Tauraco schalowi
Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix
Black-billed Turaco Tauraco schuettii
Fischer’s Turaco Tauraco fischeri Tauraco macrorhynchus
White-crested Turaco Tauraco leucolophus
Bannerman’s Turaco Tauraco bannermani
Red-crested Turaco Tauraco erythrolophus
Hartlaub’s Turaco Tauraco hartlaubi
White-cheeked Turaco Tauraco leucotis
Ruspoli’s Turaco Tauraco ruspolii
Purple-crested Turaco Tauraco porphyreolophus
Ruwenzori Turaco Ruwenzorornis johnstoni
Violet Turaco Musophaga violacea
Ross’s Turaco Musophaga rossae
Grey Go-away-bird Corythaixoides concolor
Bare-faced Go-away-bird Corythaixoides personatus
White-bellied Go-away-bird Corythaixoides leucogaster
Western Plantain-eater Crinifer piscator
Eastern Plantain-eater Crinifer zonurus