Breakfast With the Howlers


photo by Sally Retecki

Howler monkeys wake with the first light of the day and if they are outside my bedroom window, I do too. I’m not one to sleep late, but I still consider 4:30 to be nighttime. I knew it was going to be an early morning today, because last night, while I showered, I saw them through the open bathroom window swinging through the upper branches of the trees next to our house. It was late enough for me to know that they had decided to take up residence there for the night.

Sure enough, by 4:15 this morning there was a racket outside my bedroom window that practically shook the walls of our wooden house. Howlers are the loudest land animal on the planet and sound like a cross between a dog barking and a pig using a megaphone. A Dr. Doolittle kind of animal.

“ARGH ARGH ARGH,” from the big male outside my window, returned by calls from other dominant males across the jungle, “argh argh argh.”

They have a special hollow and elongated hyoid bone in their throats that allows air to pass in large quantities, and thus they are able to project their voices at such thunderous volumes. Their conversations resonated back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes until I got up to make breakfast and go sit on the porch to watch the day unfold.

The Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) or mono congo is the largest monkey in the Americas. Part of the Baboon family, they are big stocky beasts with dark brown to black fur and most adults have a long yellow or brown saddle, earning them the name Mantled howler. The face is naked, black and bearded like a Baboon. The males weigh in at fifteen pounds, the females a bit less. They live in troops, and a dominant male, who stakes out a territory where they live and feed, leads each troop. The male fends off unwanted intruders using his voice. Something I did not have to be told this morning.

While I sat drinking my morning tea, a great circus show unfolded across the clearing, or potrero as it is called in Spanish. On the other side of the potrero is a two hundred yard swath of jungle separating us from the Caribbean coastline. This stand of old trees is over one hundred feet high and quite dense. The howlers spend plenty of time back there foraging, and this year a big tree fell during a windstorm creating a hole in their usual jungle roadway.

A rustling in the trees made me aware that the troop was approaching the damaged area. Then one started across. It was the big male. He climbed to the very top of the tree above the abyss, crept out onto the upper limb as far as possible, and, as the branch began to bend under his weight, he let go free falling into the tree below––his arms flung out to catch anything available.

The landing was spectacular. Falling into a tree about 20-feet below him, he grabbed onto a branch. The extra burden carried him and the branch another 10-feet or so, the limb bending like a bow under his weight. Once reaching its maximum arc, the branch simply snapped back into its original position leaving the big guy sitting on his new perch.

The adrenaline rush must have been intense for the monkey. It was for me, watching! He sat there for a few minutes recovering his composure before ambling off to his breakfast table a few trees down. Then the rest of the family followed in exactly the same path: moms, babies, aunts and cousins. The little ones simply flung themselves at the abyss, practicing their monkey version of extreme sports.

I went in the house to make my own breakfast.

Maybe tonight they will find accomadations a bit further away, and I’ll be able to sleep a little later tomorrow.

  5 comments for “Breakfast With the Howlers

  1. sc morgan
    31/07/2007 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks for your visits and comments, Gary and Dawn.

    You are a half-cup-full kind’ a guy Gary. When we hear sirens in the city here we think, “Ah, the police/paramedics are on their way for coffee.”

    Alan and once encountered about twenty-five ambulances that had been imported–probably from Japan– and had cleared customs in Limon. Lay drivers were delivering them to the capital, San José, and they were trying out every bell and whistle on the rigs. We pulled over for the first 4 or 5 with flashers flashing, whistles whistling, sirens garonking, and horns blaring, but after that they had to maneuver through the traffic on their own. It was pretty silly but they were having a lot of fun.

    I think it was that same trip that we also found a diesel locomotive on a lowboy trailer broken down in the middle of the road. There were no flares, no emergency triangles, just a branch thrown down in the road- a warning most of us KNOW means trouble ahead.

    Nagging aside, I am enjoying the blog.

  2. Gary
    30/07/2007 at 3:25 pm

    Some people wake up to howlers — odd that I read this on the morning after Belinda and I watched the Mel Gibson Mayan saga in which a howler minor role equivalent to the conquistadors — and some wake up to fire engines, police sirens, and helicopters. I’m a glass half-full guy, and so I always listen and think “Ah, some soul is getting help.”

    It’s nice to see a good writer blog, even if it requires the good writer be nagged into it.

    ~ Gary http://www.garypresley.net

  3. Dawn
    29/07/2007 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for such a delightful trip to the ‘jungle’ and congrats on your Notre Dame sale. Excellent writing. Here’s to many, many MANY more sales!
    Dawn

  4. sarah m
    29/07/2007 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for the note of encouragement, Ruth. Yes, I am keeping these although I forget to keep emails and I find a lot of my inspirations come from notes thrown out over the Internet. I should *never* empty the trash!

    I hate the sound of scuttling crabs. There are hundreds of thousands here, but closer to the beach; thank the wilderness gods we don’t have them on our place. On our daily walk the beach is aloud with their rustling, rushing into their holes as we pass.

  5. Ruth D~
    27/07/2007 at 11:33 pm

    Wow! What a fantastic way to wake, if one must wake early! I hope you save all your stories about assimilating into the jungle amidst the natives. I see a major publication in your future; I’m talking “book.”

    I too was awakened early–5 a.m.– by animals, the hermit crabs I brought home from school for the summer. They merely scrabble around in their plastic cage, but it seems loud at 5 a.m. But obviously there are louder animals. I’ll stop whining.

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