Cochlearius cochlearius, boat-billed heron, is a rare wading bird featured by late Olmec and pre-Mayan artists for Tuxtla Statuette

Discovery of a boat-billed heron, in the Canal de Chiquimulilla, near Monterrico

Recently I had my first encounter with an unknown bird on the bank of the Canal de Chiquimulilla, between Monterrico and the ferry. I had never noticed this species of bird before, and on the Internet it turns out it is usually very hard to find, and even more hard to photograph.

I must admit I did not realize this is one of the most misunderstood birds in Olmec and Maya archaeology that exists. I doubt the bird will still be available to photograph the next time I go back, but it would be worth the trip.

Cochlearius cochlearius Boat billed heron Canal de Chiquimulilla Dec 18 2015 AM 6143
Cochlearius cochlearius  is more frecuently seen on rivers and rainy forest areas.

Two of three times a year we go to AutoSafari Chapin to study plants and animals and then continue to the Canal de Chiquimulilla to study water plants and water birds. Axel, of CECON, helps arrange a boat for the research in the mangrove swamps and lagoons near Monterrico. We have been doing field trips in this area for about 5 years.

This particular field trip was the revisit the salt processing area of the mangrove swamps. 98% of the pre-Columbian salt processing has been discontinued in this area (since obviously people can just buy white salt at any local store). And indeed, there is only one single place left on this “salt island.”

A second reason was to study the palma real which is a palm tree whose fronds are used for roofing. We are doing a photographic record of all plant species of Guatemala which are used by local people to roof their mud-floored houses. We are especially interested in all plants used as roofing which are different species than guano palm or corozo palm (which are so common that most Mayanists and architects already know them).

While photographing a palm-thatched house in another area, we explained to the local people we were also interested in photographing birds. They told us that a wild bird lived near their house. They brought us the bird. Later we realized it must have injured its tail or wings, and thus could not fly away, and that somehow it had reached a relationship with the people of the house not to harm it.

Since there are hundreds and hundreds of bird species in Guatemala, I must admit I did not pay much attention to it, since we were in the house to study its roofing material. Only once we got back to the office did I realize that I had held in my hands one of the most unknown and rarest “Olmec bird models.”

The boat-billed Heron is the most neglected and forgotten bird of the archaeology of the Maya and the earlier Olmec

One of the most famous Olmec(oid) artifacts of Preclassic Mexico is the Tuxtla Statuette. This is a 15 or 16 centimeter (a bit over 6 inches) polished greenstone carving of a anthropomorphic person with bird feet, bird wings, but a humanoid face. This hand-sized figurine is made of diopside-jadeite (Washington 1922:6). What is important more than the iconography is the pre- or proto-Mayan hieroglyphic script with a very early bar-and-dot date in what later was the standard Mayan Long Count on hundreds of stelae and lintels of dozens of Maya cities.

Since this particular bird is called a duck or duck-like in more than 50% of the university monographs and scholarly articles, I felt it was a good example to bring out and document that this boat-billed heron is not a duck:

  • No webbed feet, since this is not a swimming bird. Herons tend to wade.
  • Its beak has a raised area its entire length. Most duck beaks have no such raised area their entire lengths.
  • And actually this beak is really wide (even if it were a duck).
  • Plus the size, shape, and proportions of this bird are nothing like any duck.

So I felt this boat-billed heron would make a good cartoon character.

My experience with Olmec civilization

At age 16, I went to southern Mexico, by myself, as a backpacker. I had been studying Spanish, at a recently opened private school in Saltillo (northern Mexico, near Monterrey). One of my high school classmates at St Louis Priory School, Linn Bealke, wanted to study Spanish, but his parents would not let him go alone, so his parents asked if I could go with him so the parents would okay the trip. Mexico sounded like a nice place to run off to, so we drove to Mexico in 1962 (why parents let their kids drive to Mexico at age 16 is beyond me).

While in Saltillo I saw a photograph of Palenque (a Maya ruin in Chiapas, southern Mexico). I decided I wanted to see and experience this mysterious place (at age 16 I had zilch idea who the Maya were).

Cochlearius cochlearius Boat billed heron Canal de Chiquimulilla Dec 18 2015 ES DSC06619
This Cochlearius cochlearius Boat billed heron was captured on photograph this past December 2015.

One of the instructors at my Spanish school had colleagues in Vistahermosa, and said that I could fly from there to Palenque (“fly”, it turned out it was a Cessna-like plane…).

So actually I left the Spanish school early (of course without telling my parents, much less asking permission), and I took a second-class bus to Mexico City, arriving at about midnight.

Since I had almost no money, I walked from the bus station of arrival to the bus station for departure. This involved 4 to 6 hours of walking through Mexico City, at night! In those days no problem actually. I found a man and his son who were going near where I had to go, and they helped guide me. I remember passing by the then Hilton Hotel, where my parents had recently stayed when they were in Mexico City. And here I was the son, with so little money I had to spend the night going on foot many miles between bus stations since I had neither money for the hotel nor for a taxi cab. But actually I do appreciate that my parents did not spoil me. Many of my classmates were wading in their parents money.

After many adventures, I got to Villahermosa, capital of Tabasco. Here I went to the local Parque La Venta, the Olmec archaeological park. So at age 16 I was face-to-face with Olmec sculptures, each one of which weighed many tons!

Since my Spanish was still fledgling, and since I did not know the city layout of Villahermosa, I did not get to the “airport” in time. So missed my flight, and had to figure out how to take a train (to Tenosique), from which another train went to Palenque (no highways near here in these early years).

This frontier town had one train track going out into the jungle. Since I had to wait about six hours for the train, I decided to explore the jungle. I grew up in Missouri, and knew the Ozark Mountains where our family had a farm. But I had never been to any tropical country, so this was the first time I had seen a rain forest.

I walked down the train tracks (since there were no more roads). After an hour down the track, a local milpa farmer noticed me, and said hello (not many gringos are crazy enough to hike down a railroad track in the middle of nowhere; in these years there were not many tourists in Tenosique!).

I explained that I had never seen a rain forest before, and that I wanted to learn, wanted to experience, this remarkable eco-system.

So he said he would show me around, and he took me off on a narrow muddy trail. I heard howler monkeys for the first time.

He took me to a cave since in the Missouri Ozarks we have caves and even a cenote on our farm (much of the Maya area is Karst geology as is the Ozark Mountain area).

He led me back to the train track, and I returned to the train station, took the train to Palenque, stayed in a hotel for 50 cents a night, explored the Mayan ruins, somehow got back to Saltillo, somehow drove back to St Louis, Missouri, next year wrote my high school thesis on Palenque Mayan archaeology, and got accepted at Harvard.

And today, over half a century later, I am still studying the Mayan civilization, but now focused primarily on the utilitarian plants and animals of the diverse eco-systems of Guatemala.