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The Neotropical Zone

General Information

Birdwatchers often discuss Neotropical Migrant birds. What exactly are the they, and what is the Neotropical Zone? More than 3,000 species of birds make their home in the Neotropical Zone. This represents about one-third of the birds species in the world, and is more bird species than in any other zoogeographical region.

Each spring, more than 150 species of Neotropical birds leave their Central and South American homes to make their way to North America (the Nearctic Zone) to nest and rear their young.

These migrants represent many groups of birds, including flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, hawks, orioles, hummingbirds, swallows, swifts, hawks, and falcons. Those birds that make this long and hazardous journey are the Neotropical migrants.


The Neotropical Region is one of the 6 major zoogeographical regions of the world. It extends from Central Mexico south to the southern most tip of South America. This is the most biologically diverse region on Earth. More species of plants and birds occur here than in any other region. Many diverse habitats occur in the Neotropics, and not all of these habitats are tropical. Let’s take a look at this region as it occurs in the South American country of Ecuador.


The Neotropical Region
Figure 1 - The Neotropical Region

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
Figure 2 - Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands


Ecuador, about the size of Nevada, is located on the northwest coast of South America. Although small in size, its diverse habitats are home to more than 1,500 species of birds. This is an amazing number of species when one considers that only 800 to 900 bird species occur in all of North America.


Ecuador is located right on the equator. The Andes Mountains form its backbone. These geographical features combine to provide a diverse range of habitats extending from the Pacific Coast through tropical and temperate forests to the Arctic-like conditions that occur high in the Andes Mountains, and on into the western Amazon basin.


Figure 3 - Ecuador

The Equator
Figure 4 - The Equator


At the Globe Monument northwest of the capitol city of Quito, a yellow line marks the actual location of the equator. Even though Ecuador lies on the equator, its range of altitudes from sea level to over 20,000 feet create a diversity of climate from tropical to polar. As one travels higher, the progression of these life zones is similar to those seen as one travels north from the equator the North Pole.


At lower elevations, rugged terrain is blanketed by virgin primary rainforest. The forests shown here, near the village of Mindo in northwest Ecuador, have more than 430 species of birds. This is more than half the number of species that occur in all of North America. This small area supports one of the greatest diversities of birds in the Neotropical Zone.


Pacific Slope Tropical Wet Forest
Figure 5 - Pacific Slope Tropical Wet Forest

Cloud Forest
Figure 6 - Cloud Forest


Even though on the equator, increasing elevations make for cooler climates. At higher altitudes, the forests of the tropics give way to subtropical or temperate pre-mountain and mountain cloud forests.

At higher elevations, mountain cloud forests give way to the Páramo, the wet, windswept grasslands locate above the treeline. These occur from northern Peru through Ecuador and Columbia to southwestern Venezuela. 



Páramo - High Elevation Grassland
Figure 7 - Páramo - High Elevation Grassland

Alpine Habitat Above 14,000 Feet
Figure 8 - Alpine Habitat Above 14,000 Feet


Still higher, grasslands give way to the stunted vegetation and moss covered ground of tundra-like habitats. Even at these altitudes, many bird species can be found, including the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Many-striped Canastero, Plumbous Sierra Finch, and the Chimborazo Hillstar hummingbird. 


At the highest elevations, glaciers crown the volcanic peaks along the Andes Mountain chain. These peaks are some of the highest in the world. Cotapaxi, at 19,342 feet, is the highest active volcano in the world. These high altitudes are the home of the famed Andean Condor.


Cotapaxi Volcano
Figure 9 - Cotapaxi Volcano


Quito, The Capitol City of Ecuador
Figure 10 - Quito, The Capitol City of Ecuador


The Capitol city of Ecuador is Quito. Located in the north central part of Ecuador, it is nestled in the valley between the volcanic mountain ranges at an altitude of 10,000 feet. More than 1.2 million people reside in this valley where the altitude produces a spring-like climate all year round.


Most of the original forest in the Quito area has been replaced by introduced Eucalyptus. Fortunately, this Eucalyptus forest supports a number of interesting birds, including the Giant Thrush, Southern Yellow Grosbeak, Hooded Siskin, Band-tailed Seedeater, Black Flowerpiercer, Blue and Yellow Tanager, and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker. Several species of hummingbirds can also be found here including the Giant Hummingbird, Sparkling Violet Ear, and the spectacular Black-tailed and Green-tailed Trainbearers.


Eucalyptus Forest
Figure 11 - Eucalyptus Forest

neo12.jpg (27389 bytes)
Figure 12 - Turdus fuscater


One of the common birds in the Eucalyptus forest is the Great Thrush. In habit and song, this bird is reminiscent of the American Robin.

The Vermillion Flycatcher is also common in some areas, and can easily be found breeding in this region. 

Phyrocephalus rubinus with Young
Figure 13 - Phyrocephalus rubinus with Young


Zonotricha capensis
Figure 14 - Zonotricha capensis


The Rufous-collared Sparrow is one of the most common birds found in Ecuador, especially around human habitations.

Final Comment

Ecuador represents only a small part of the region we know as the Neotropics. In the Neotropical Zone, many other habitat types can be found with names like Caatinga, Puna, Pantanal, Pampas, Matorral, Cerrado, Campo, Chaco, Llanos, Patagonian Steppe, Várzea and Yungas. These range in climate from the hot dry Atacama Desert of Chile and the vast grasslands of Argentina through the humid tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin to the cold grasslands and barren rocky landscapes at the highest elevations.

This great diversity of habitats, and the ocean realm that surrounds them, provide the habitats necessary to support this vast assemblage of species. As in other parts of the world, growing human populations place increasing pressure on remaining natural areas.

If the Neotropical Zone is to continue to support this vast diversity of species, we must work as partners together in our global world to instill the interest and desire to conserve natural areas. Only then can we assure the survival of ourselves and the species that share our planet.

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