If there were ever a competition for the most common endemic bird of Hispaniola, the Hispaniolan woodpecker would likely be the black-crowned palm-tanager’s sole rival. This handsome tanager can be found from sea level to high mountain peaks at 2,500 meters, in dry, wet broadleaf and pine forests, in coffee and cocoa plantations, as well as in cities. Its distribution covers the entire island with the sole exception of the Tiburón peninsula in southwest Haiti, where instead we find its close relative, the gray-crowned palm tanager (Phaenicophilus poliocephalus). Despite its familiarity, the black-crowned palm tanager is a remarkably beautiful bird that merits much more than just a passing glance. This robust tanager is about 18 centimeters long. Its back is greenish-yellow, and its nape gray. Its crown and mask are jet-black. Two conspicuous white spots above each eye lend this bird its common Spanish name, cuatro ojos, and its Haitian Kreyol name, Kat Je, both meaning four-eyes.
Black-crowned palm-tanagers typically forage in pairs or small family groups, frequently signaling each other with their soft squeaky chip note, or pe-aaau call, sometimes described as the meow of a kitten. This tanager forages in trees and shrubs, where it moves slowly but deliberately, occasionally flicking its tail as it inspects holes and crevices in search of food. Its strong feet enable it to cling in virtually any position from the thinnest branches to broad tree-trunks, where it uses its strong beak to probe and pry for hidden prey.
The black-crowned palm-tanager is primarily insectivorous, but its diverse diet also includes seeds, fruits and small lizards. In the capital city, Santo Domingo, it has even been observed collecting and caching pieces of bread. Another of its dietary oddities is its habit of feeding on the honeydew secreted by a scale insect (Order Hemiptera), that itself, feeds on the sap of the native gumbo-limbo tree (Bursera simaruba). There is also a report of the black-crowned palm-tanager using tools, suggesting that this is a species of uncommon intelligence. The specific behavior observed was an individual using the fork of a tree to hold its lizard prey in place while the bird tore it into smaller, more manageable pieces.
“My biggest surprise was that no one knew that it ate lizards, something I had known since childhood. This is perhaps because it is a small bird that exists only on our island, where almost everything has yet to be studied.” Simón Guerrero
Another noteworthy behavior is this tanager’s propensity for leadership: In a study of mixed-species flocks in pine forests, the black-crowned palm-tanager was often the “nuclear” species, that is, the one around which the flock forms, and whose movements the other birds follow as they search for food. These mixed flocks, which often comprise both resident and migratory species, appear better at avoiding predators (such as hawks) and at locating food resources. The black-crowned palm-tanager typically returns to its favorite roosting place each night. Despite its other remarkable traits, this bird’s nest is a roughly-constructed affair, made with leaves and sticks arranged rather carelessly: there is even a report of a pair nesting under a tractor!