Thanks to the folks over at Rainforest Journeys  for posting this image and piquing my interest in this most beautiful bird – known as La Tanrrilla to those where it lives in Southern Mexico to northern Bolivia, central Brazil and southern Peru – and as the Sunbittern or Eurypyga helias to the rest of us.

La Tanrrilla is, taxonomically speaking, a rather lonely species. As this page on the Order Eurypygiformes explains that the:

Eurypygiformes is a clade formed by the Kagu, comprising two species in the Rhynochetidae family endemic to New Caledonia, and the Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) from the tropical regions of the Americas … The Eurypygiformes’s affinities are not too well resolved.

They are two families from a Gondwanan lineage of birds.

Suggested by some morphological characteristics they were initially classed as members of the family Ardeidae and later the Gruiformes. 

When seen as a gruiform, the Kagu is generally considered related to the extinct adzebills from New Zealand and the Sunbittern from Central and South America. Recent studies do indicate that the Sunbittern is the closest living relative of the Kagu.

But there is more that is fascinating about La Tanrrilla than it’s obscure lineage. At first glance it is just another beautiful cryptically-plumaged denizen of the thick tropical swamps and jungles where La Tanrrilla stalks slowly on long, bright orange legs, with their snakelike necks and long sharp beaks held low to the ground looking for prey. They seldom fly.

But the real beauty of La Tanrrilla  is only revealed when they are under threat or as part of their elaborate courtship rituals when they spread their glorious wings to reveal a truly magnificent display of colour and light.

Unsurprisingly for a bird of such beauty they are the subject of myth and legend. This is from a wonderful book called Imagenes Del Pariso, in La Reserva Nacional Allpahuayo-Mishana in the Peruvian Amazon. 

La tanrrilla (Eurypyga helias) es una de las aves más carismáticas de las leyendas amazónicas.

Según la creencia popular, del hueso de su pata se elabora una poderosa pusanga (filtro amoroso), que es usada en la selva para atraer a la mujer amada.

El amante debe mirar al objeto de su deseo a través del hueco del delgado hueso, que debe ser preparado cuidadosamente durante un complejo ritual.

The Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias) is one of the most charismatic birds from Amazonian legends.

According to popular belief, the leg bones can be made into a powerful pusanga (love filter) that is used in the jungle to attract the beloved female.

The love struck male must look at the object of his desire through the hole of the thin bone, which must be carefully prepared in a complex ritual.

And from this post at Steve Beyer’s blog Singing to the Plants – where he explores all things Ayahuascan and Amazonian – comes this hint that La Tanrrilla is endowed with more than spectacular plumage.

Among mestizos, the pipe stem is preferably made from the thin hollow leg bone of the Tanrrilla, Sunbittern, Eurypyga helias, a wading bird with significant magical properties and, reportedly, a spectacular erection.

I also own a pipe in the indigenous style whose stem is made from a monkey bone; the Yagua make their pipe stems from the bone of a panguana, Tinamou bird, Crypturellus undulatus.

That “spectacular” attribute may explain the significance of La Tanrilla as a source of love magic.

This anecdote is also from the Peruvian Amazon.

According to jungle legend, the bird can help unlucky men attract the woman they desire.

The man will kill the tanrrilla and bury it for several weeks or months until the flesh rots away. He then digs up the bones and takes the long leg bone which is now hollow.

He will then seek out the girl he wants for his “enamorada”, or sweetheart, and he will hide until she is nearby.

He will then take out the leg bone, which acts as his talisman, and he will look at her through the hollow bone. A spell is cast on the girl, and she will suddenly accept his attentions.

If you have any further information about La Tanrilla elsewhere in its range – particularly any information about mythological links or magical properties – I’d welcome your thoughts here.