High in the hills of the southern zone of Costa Rica, sights, sounds, and scents can be overwhelming at times. I came here to spend a month focused on researching and writing, naively believing a quiet house in the hills with only a lumpy dirt road for access would provide the solitude and peace I had been seeking. Yes––I have found both qualities in abundance, but what I wasn’t expecting was a continuous parade of colorful distractions that could make me drop my pencil in utter astonishment.
The morning ritual religiously observed for years by my host, Jan Hart, owner of Casa de Corazón near San Isidro de El General, is to place two ripe bananas on the bird feeder in front of her casita for all the local birds — a rainbow of colors and cacophony of tweets and chirps — in the tree above.
There’s the Scarlet-rumped Tanager, a stunning black bird with a red-hot Nike-swoosh on his sides; the Golden-Hooded Tanager named Frank; the fire-engine-red Summer Tanager; the iridescent Green Honey Creeper (the male is actually teal blue); and occasionally the sunny yellow Great Kiskadee, who observes from a safe height, seemingly slightly annoyed at all the fuss below. And so many more. Like flying flowers, they gather on the feeder, a colorful avian breakfast club.
But, despite the kaleidoscope of fancy birds before my eyes, my favorite is the rather dull Clay-colored Thrush, also known as the Yigüirro — national bird of Costa Rica. This bird is so bland that its scientific name is Turdus grayi. (By the way, turdus is Latin for thrush, so don’t go where your mind tries to take you.)
But why choose the Yigüirro at all in a country teeming with iconic and flashy birds like macaws, motmots, toucans, and tanagers? I mean, this thrush is a very nice bird, with a good personality, and he gets along well with all the other birds at the feeder, but he’s not showy, huge, ferocious, or any other superlative.
As we sit on the patio, in our hand-tooled leather Costa Rican rocking chairs, watching pink and purple clouds pile up on the mountains to the west, Jan tells the story of why this plain little bird became a national star. For starters, the Yigüirro male has an unmistakable gorgeous song, which heralds the arrival of the green or rainy season. This bird also tends to live close to humans, making it as familiar as the robin, its cousin in the US. Because of its close relationship with humans and its beautiful mating serenade, the bird has been mentioned in many Costa Rican folk songs, poems, and literature. The bird is pleasant, modest, even humble, if I may anthropomorphize — all characteristics appreciated and embodied by the Ticos.
And the real reason? Have a listen: https://youtu.be/gJQ8XCiSBQk (Serenade of the Clay-colored Thrush).
I understand now. It’s the way of the Ticos. Pura vida.