Palmchat (Dulus dominicus)

It lacks bright colors, and sings no beautiful song to attract admirers, yet the humble palmchat deserves its status as one of our most charismatic birds. Somewhat larger than a sparrow, brownish-olive above and whitish with dark streaks underneath, this bird has a very peculiar behavior that immediately caught the attention of the first naturalists who visited our island, and which prompted them to dub the palmchat a páxaro comunero (communal bird). These birds nest in groups and individuals are often seen carrying branches and sticks (sometimes much longer than themselves) to build and repair their large nests. Each pair builds its own ‘apartment’ with their own private entrance. Large nests with many pairs of birds can exceed 2 meters in width. The only other species in the world that build large communal nests like this are the social weavers of Africa and the Monk Parakeet of South America. Inside the nest, they use strips of fine grass to weave a soft lining to cradle the nestlings. Both parents feed the young and keep the nest tidy. All this hard work gives rise to the name of its genus (dulus), whose origin is the Greek root meaning “slave”. In French it is the esclave palmist, or slave of the palm tree.

In this species, hard work starts at a tender age. As early as three months after fledging, the young birds begin to help their family maintain the nest. Both its English and Spanish common names refer to their affinity for building their nests around the crowns of the royal palm trees, a common feature of the Dominican landscape. However, when palms are absent, these industrious birds readily use other trees or even electricity poles to build their nests.

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Since they were first described in 1766, palmchats puzzled taxonomists, who tried unsuccessfully to classify it within known groups until they decided to create a new genus, and new family of its own. The palmchat is also special in having no particularly close relatives, reflected by its placement as the sole member of both its genus and its family. Today it is known that its closest relatives are the Bombicillid family (the Waxwings), found only in Northern latitudes, thus increasing the mystery surrounding the origins of this enigmatic Hispianolan bird. For its uniqueness, the palmchat was designated the National Bird of the Dominican Republic in 1987. Fortunately, the palmchat is abundant and common, found in almost every habitat type, except in the highest mountains.

“There are on this island a kind of bird somewhat smaller than those we call sparrows in Castille, which they resemble fairly in plumage and diligence, and are no less astute and malicious. The have great enthusiasm and energy.” Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo
“Many still ask why such an un-photogenic bird as the palmchat, who doesn’t sing like the Mockingbird nor is as charismatic and colorful as the Hispaniolan Parrot, could have been declared our National Bird.” Simón Guerrero

They eat fruits, flowers, and occasionally insects, thereby helping to maintain forest health, pollinate flowers, and control pests. Palmchats are highly vocal birds, especially near their nests, producing what has been described as an “array of strange, slurring, whistled call notes.” We end this account by drawing a parallel between the enchanting palmchat and the equally social Dominicans: “when we get together we are very noisy, we like to hang out in groups and we are not especially beautiful!”