Aviarylife "Words on Birds"

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Text and photos by Simon Degenhard

In June 2011 I was given the opportunity to visit a breeder in Panama, who by all accounts had an incredible collection of birds. I was scheduled to be in Miami mid-June, so decided to grab the chance to jump on a plane, along with Florida based breeder Jason Shane and world-renowned aviculturist Tony Silva, and head to Panama to see for myself just how incredible this collection truly was. Only minutes after our arrival, it was obvious that this collection would at the very least equal any other collection the world over!

Although he had kept pet birds on and off from a young age it wasn’t until 1991 that Jacobo Lacs or Jaco as he more commonly known, really began his foray into the avicultural world. Back in those days it was a common occurrence for large canoes coming from Columbia to land on the Caribbean coast of Panama; the crews came to buy coconuts, which they would then take back to Columbia and use to manufacture coconut oil. On one such occasion, due to a severe storm a canoe was forced to take shelter on an island close by Jaco’s beachside property, upon discovery by the local authorities it was found to have numerous birds on board, stowed away illegally in tomato boxes.

The birds were subsequently confiscated, however the local authorities did not have anywhere suitable to house them. Many of the birds were in very bad shape and some were already dead. At the time of this occurrence Jaco was on holiday overseas, however despite this, as there was no time to waste the birds were placed at his property until it was determined what would be done with them. As a result some 80 odd birds took up residence on Jaco’s farm; the species were mixed and included several varieties of macaws, amazon parrots and toucans. 

Upon his return home Jaco was told to contact the highly regarded US avian veterinarian Dr. Susan Clubb, in order to determine the best course of action to enable the recovery of the remaining birds.  

Many of the species originally inhabited the national park bordering Jaco’s property, but had ceased to exist there some years earlier, therefor it was decided that when/if the birds in question were determined to be back in optimum health they would be released to fly free in this area once again. Eventually, with the continued guidance of Dr. Clubb, this saw the release of roughly 60 of the 83 birds that were originally confiscated – the remaining 20 odd birds were deemed unfit for a return to the wild and thus formed the nucleus of Jaco’s collection.

Having always liked animals, and birds in particular, this was welcomed and only served to increase his interest – soon more aviaries were being built and an avid aviculturist was born!

Although the collection originally comprised of various parrots, it was not all that long before the lure of softbills was too much to resist. This encouraged the building of yet more aviaries, though this time they were to be much larger, with some also being planted with a myriad of lush vegetation. 

These days’ toucans form a large proportion of the softbill component of the collection, with around 28 species and subspecies being kept. This fascination with the Ramphastidae family started in the late 1990’s, a time when little was known about the captive breeding of toucans; books on the subject were non-existent and it was virtually the same case for documented info in general. So, the decision was taken to set about learning about these magnificent birds the hard way, by first hand experience. 

Despite the lack of available info, initial success came relatively quickly in the way of the world first captive breeding of the Curl-crested Aracari Pteroglossus beauharnaesii in 1998. Since this first success numerous species have been and continue to be reared within the collection. They remain a firm favourite with Jaco and once you see them in the flesh (or should I say feathers), it is easy to understand why! 


Most of Jaco’s softbill collection is housed within 3 very large, heavily planted aviaries, each one measuring roughly 30m long x 20m wide x 6m high. These aviaries house a multitude of compatible species including various manakins, tanagers, hummingbirds, contingas, barbets, pigeons, doves, tragopans, tinamous, Mockingbirds and junglefowl to name but a few! Jaco believes that among the most important things to be considered when setting up a mixed collection is that you must give thought to housing species together that live and/or fly at different levels, so that each species has sufficient territory. For example numerous species of hummingbird are kept within these large aviaries without any obvious signs of aggression being displayed; this has been achieved by paying particular attention to only mixing species that live and feed at different levels and as such providing feeding stations at different heights throughout the aviaries. Many of the hummingbird species held are regularly bred within these enclosures. 

The toucans are an obvious exception to the rule as they will predate smaller birds and their eggs/young, so therefore they are housed as single pairs within the 70 smaller aviaries that run around three sides of the large aviaries, with each one measuring approximately 6m long x 3m wide x 3m high. 

Cotingas and manakins rate amongst Jaco’s favourite’s and he explains that this is not only due to their often spectacular plumage, but also largely because of their interesting behaviour and amazing courtship displays. Of the species kept, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock Rupicola peruvianus is an absolute standout and it was a thrill to say the least to have them come so close you could touch them and even have the odd one land on my head and camera lens during my visit! 

Another spectacular species that is kept within the large mixed aviaries is the Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno, an amazing species that belongs to the trogon family and heralds from southern Mexico to western Panama. They are roughly 36-40cm in length and overall an almost iridescent green, with a ruby red breast; males also sport a very impressive 65cm long wavy tail. At the time of my visit it was believed that this species of Quetzal was only held in 3 collections the world over.

One species that Jaco is particularly proud of his regular success with is the Blue-headed Quail Dove Starnoenas cyanocephala; this species is very rare and only hails from Cuba. Excellent breeding results have been achieved with them and this success is even more satisfying seeing that the chicks are more often than not, parent raised.

Among the other intriguing species that are kept is the Capuchinbird Perissocephalus tricolor or Calfbird as they are also known. This species hails from north-eastern South America, almost exclusively north of the Amazon River and east of Rio Negro – in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and The Guianas. They are overall a rich brown colour, which turns almost orange on the belly; their under-tail coverts and short tail are black. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is their bare almost vulture-like head, which is covered in dull blue skin. The males have two - one on each side of the rump - lighter brown tufts of feathers that feature prominently during their elaborate display. They attract their alternative name of Calfbird due to their almost calf like call that is regularly emitted throughout the day.

Long-wattled Umbrellabirds Cephalopterus penduliger are another fascinating species that are being kept and bred by Jaco. They have a very limited captive history and have been kept in only a handful of collections. Although a breeder in Chile was the first person to encourage this species to lay in captivity, Jaco achieved the world first successful captive breeding of this species in October 2010. The display of the male Umbrellabird is unmistakable and will no doubt leave a lasting impression on anyone who is lucky enough to witness it.

Jaco also keeps a number of raptors, including the Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus and the incredible Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja. The Harpy’s are a native to Panama.

A number of other non-avian species also feature in this magnificent collection including various marmosets, jungle cats such as Ocelots Leopardus pardalis and Jaguars Panthera onca, Capybaras Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris and Iguanas!  

As you can see, Jaco undoubtedly has one of the most magnificent collections of softbills in the world, one that he is immensely proud of and rightly so. However, the softbills only form half of this all but incomparable bird collection; so stay tuned here for the next instalment, when I will showcase many of the wonderful parrots that also call this place home!  

Cheers, Simon.

 Golden-headed Manakin

(Pipra erythrocephala) 

Golden-collared Manakin

(Manacus vitellinus)

Male Red-capped Manakin

(Pipra mentalis) 

A Panama Surprise
"The incredible collection of Jacobo Lacs"

PO BOX 39,  Bellingen NSW 2454 AU