The Poison Bird – Hooded Pitohui

The hooded hitohui (Pitohui dichrous) of Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s first and only documented poisonous birds. It was discovered to be toxic during a 1989 study of birds of paradise by American ornithologist John (Jack) Dumbacher. He and his team had mist nets set out to catch birds of paradise, but inevitably, other birds were caught in the nets as well. Some of these birds were hooded pitohuis, which would bite and scratch defensively when being extracted from the mist net. Dumbacher got a bite from one of the birds on his finger that started to sting, so he decided suck on the cut to clean it. After about a minute, his lips and tongue started to tingle and burn. This happened to several other volunteers as well so the team wondered if the pitohui was the cause. When more pitohuis were captured, Dumbacher took a feather and put it directly on his tongue, finding that the burning and tingling effects could last for hours. When he returned to America, Dumbacher took some feathers to chemist John Daly at the National Institute of Health. By 1992, Daly discovered that the feathers contained batrachotoxin. It is an extremely powerful steroidal alkaloid poison that is largely neurotoxic, and even relatively small doses can lead to paralysis of all muscles, cardiac arrest, and then death. This is the most toxic natural substance known and is also present in the secretions of several poison dart frogs of the genus Phyllobates (most famously, Phyllobates terribilis – the Golden Poison Frog).

At first it was not known how this bird acquired such a potent toxin, but locals of New Guinea were asked what they knew about hooded pitohuis and relayed their observations. Pitohuis often catch and eat small and colorful Choresine beetles from the Melyridae family. The same toxin has previously been found in these beetles, which are also known to be preyed upon by Phyllobates poison dart frogs. The striking orange and black feathers of the hooded pitohui are another indication of its toxicity. Many poisonous and venomous animals are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are very dangerous and not to be messed with. This is called aposematic coloration. Any animal unlucky enough to catch a pitohui would quickly learn to stay away when it sees those colors again. Of course, the bird has not always had this defense. First it had to evolve to cope with the poison itself before being able to incorporate the toxin as part of its own defense. It is likely that the first pitohuis that fed on melyrid beetles only ate a few at a time, slowly building up a resistance to batrachotoxin over generations. This toxin has been found in not only the bird’s feathers, but also its flesh.

This amazing, colorful bird just goes to show that even the most seemingly harmless animals can have alarming tricks up their sleeves.

References:
1. Dumbacher, John P., et al. “Homobatrachotoxin in the genus Pitohui: chemical defense in birds?.” SCIENCE-NEW YORK THEN WASHINGTON- (1992): 799-799.

2. Dumbacher, John P., et al. “Melyrid beetles (Choresine): A putative source for the batrachotoxin alkaloids found in poison-dart frogs and toxic passerine birds.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101.45 (2004): 15857-15860.

3. “Jack Dumbacher.” California Academy of Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2015. <http://www.calacademy.org/explore-science/jack-dumbacher&gt;.

Photo Links:
1. http://img2.panamericana.pe/slideshow/1392751307845.jpg

2. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/files/2012/08/Choresine-and-Pitohui.jpg

Crown of Feathers – Hoopoe

Hoopoe (Upupa epops) is an unusual name for an unusual looking bird found throughout Afro-Eurasia. This bird has a black and white barred tail and wings, a creamy, peach colored body, a long, thin beak, and most notably a large crest of feathers tipped in black and white on the top of its head. Its wings are short and rounded and it flies in an undulating motion that is said to be similar to butterfly flight. It is a medium sized bird about 9.8-12.6 inches in length. The hoopoe actually gets its English name from the sound it makes while singing. The song is a deep, haunting ‘oop oop oop’ that has led to the bird being associated with death and the Underworld in Estonian tradition. The song itself is said to forebode death. Across the majority of Europe, it was thought of as a thief and as a harbinger of war in Scandinavia. However, the hoopoe is considered good in most other cultures because it eats many insects that are considered to be pests. In Ancient Egypt, the hoopoe was a sacred bird and depictions of it can be found on the walls of Egyptian temples and tombs. The people of Minoan Crete held similar beliefs about it. Over most of its range, the hoopoe is a protected bird and it is illegal to harm or kill it.

Hoopoes mostly feed on insects of all sorts, but will also eat some types of berries and seeds on occasion. They mainly forage on the ground and poke their beak into soil to hunt for insect larvae or worms. Sometimes they will even flip over rocks with their beak or use their feet to dig out creatures they find in the dirt.
They nest in the cavities of trees, cliffs, abandoned animal holes, or sometimes manmade structures such as nest boxes and walls. Pairs form monogamous bonds for one breeding season only, but it remains strong throughout this period. Males will become very territorial and verbally advertise ownership of their mate and their nesting area, often chasing off or getting into fights with other males and sometimes females. These fights are actually quite intense and can occasionally lead to a bird being blinded by a rival’s sharp beak.

A female hoopoe lays a varying number of eggs depending on her location. In tropic and subtropic regions, average clutch size is around seven whereas in central or Northern Europe and Asia it is generally twelve. She is the sole incubator of the eggs and the male brings her food while she sits on them. During this time, the hoopoe’s preening gland found at the base of the tail, normally used to produce oil for the feathers, starts to secrete an unpleasant substance that smells similar to rotting meat. This is to make the bird unappealing to predators and may play a role in protecting against feather parasites. The baby hoopoes also produce this substance until they are out of the nest.

As you can see, this hoopoe found a nice hole in somebody’s wall:

The hoopoe is a migratory bird in most respects, but populations in Africa stay where they are year round. Most hoopoes in Europe and Northern Asia travel to the tropics to overwinter and return in the spring to breed then stay through the summer and early fall. During migration, these birds will often fly at high altitudes across the Himalayas and have even been recorded at heights of almost 21,000 feet above sea level! When not facing the perils and exhaustion of migration, hoopoes enjoy taking sunbaths together on warm days like scantily clad young women at the beach. Unlike tanning girls, though, they also love dust bathing. The dust they rub into their feathers helps clean them and rid them of parasites and other irritants.

I’ve never had the privilege of seeing this unique and beautiful bird since I live in the U.S., but if you live anywhere in Europe, Asia, or Africa, go try to find a few hoopoes and have some fun watching them run around on the ground searching for bugs or playing in the dirt. Maybe listen for the male’s pining song during breeding season and see if you find it to be eery and foreboding too like the Estonians once did.

References:
1. Seago, Michael. “The Hoopoe, Upupa Epops – a Colourful Bird.” Birds of Britain. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015. <http://birdsofbritain.co.uk/bird-guide/hoopoe.asp&gt;.

2. Dupree, Nancy Hatch. “An interpretation of the role of the hoopoe in Afghan folklore and magic.” Folklore 85.3 (1974): 173-193.

3. Perrins, Christopher M. “Hoopoe.” Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2003. 382. Print.

4. Hiiemäe, Mall. “Forty Birds in Estonian Folklore IV.” Mäetagused. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 May 2015.

5. Martín-Platero, Antonio M., et al. “Characterization of antimicrobial substances produced by Enterococcus faecalis MRR 10-3, isolated from the uropygial gland of the hoopoe (Upupa epops).” Applied and environmental microbiology 72.6 (2006): 4245-4249.

5. Cameron, Ad, Christopher M. Perrins, and Colin James Oliver. Harrison. “Hoopoes.” Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World.Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader’s Digest Association, 1982. 304. Print.

Photo Links:
1. http://www.kimballstock.com/pix/BRD/13/BRD-13-WF0122-01P.JPG

2. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Young_and_mature_hoopoe.jpg

3. https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/_9XqcePo6Kh8/TbUycXovuhI/AAAAAAAAAr0/X8hCSVaUe_g/wood%20pecky.jpg

4. http://iberianature.com/lucyblog/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/hoopoe-on-path-4.jpg

5. https://creaturefacts.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/453e4-22bdust2bbath.jpg

A Bird with a Kick! – Southern Cassowary

This is a bird you don’t want to mess with and serves as evidence that dinosaurs are still living among us. The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is a large ratite, or flightless bird, related to the ostrich, emu, and rhea. It can weigh up to 150 pounds and reach a height of 5.9 feet! Not only that, but it is not a gentle bird and has been known to injure or even kill humans who threaten it. The claws on its inner toes are specifically designed for fighting and can easily rip a person wide open. Their kick alone can break bones and cause other internal damage.

The cassowary also possesses a hard, helmet like crest on its head and is capable of headbutting as well. It can run very fast and will charge anything it feels is a threat. This is not without reason, though. In some areas, cassowaries have become accustomed to being fed and are no longer afraid of humans, making them even more aggressive than normal. A cassowary will also attack to defend its chicks or its territory.
So where do these big, scary birds live and what do they look like? Well, if you want to, you can find them in the tropical rainforests of northeast Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Their feathers are black, bristly, and fur-like. They have no feathers on their upper neck or head and the skin there is bright blue with red wattles like a turkey. You’ve already seen what their claws look like! If you weren’t convinced that birds evolved from dinosaurs before, maybe you are after seeing that foot.

Here’s a picture of the whole bird where you can actually see all these details together in better quality than that attack picture up there:

Interestingly, the male is the one who takes on all of the egg and chick rearing duties with no help from the female. Cassowaries are solitary and they only pair up during breeding season in late winter to early spring. The male will build the nest, incubate the eggs, and look after the chicks all by himself. The female just leaves after laying her eggs. What a fantastic dad! Wouldn’t it be nice if human males were this responsible and helpful? Just kidding, just kidding!

The eggs are very large and quite beautiful:

People will sometimes collect them to make art and it’s easy to see why!

So the southern cassowary has a reputation for being the most dangerous bird in the world, but if you give it some space just as with any other animal, it will give you yours. Most attacks only occur when the bird feels like it is in danger, defending its young, or when it is being physically attacked by a human. It’s not the cassowary’s fault if it’s trying to defend itself and its home. We should know better than to hurt or mess with such a powerful animal. Maybe if more people would grow to appreciate what fascinating animals cassowaries are, they will come to treat it with more caution and respect.

References:
1.”Wildlife Queensland – Southern Cassowary.” Wildlife Queensland. Wildlife Queensland, July 2010. Web. 02 May 2015. .

2.”Cassowary Attacks.” Amazing Australia. Amazing Australia, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015. .

3.Judson, Olivia. “Cassowaries.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, July 2012. Web. 02 May 2015. .

Photo Links:

1. http://33.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mblkmiWCAx1r8r1lb.jpg

2. http://www.amazingaustralia.com.au/animals/pictures/cassowary-attack-2.jpg

3. http://cdn2.arkive.org/media/B6/B6AB4854-576B-4476-BD31-AA8BC7F3844E/Presentation.Large/Southern-cassowary-walking.jpg

4. http://cdn2.arkive.org/media/A5/A5EFF3A3-C4E0-4B75-9DBA-158A48B87DA9/Presentation.Large/Male-southern-cassowary-with-young-chick.jpg

5. https://www.australiazoo.com.au/about-us/zoo-gossip/images/1055_five_600.jpg

Lammergeier – The Pretty Vulture

The Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), also known as the bearded vulture, is an old world vulture living at very high altitudes across Europe, Africa, and Asia. They mostly live at or above the tree line of their given area, for instance, this would be about 16,000 feet above sea level in central Asia. They have even been recorded at altitudes up to 24,000 feet up in the great heights of Mount Everest! Those are some cold birds!

What is interesting about these vultures in particular is that 85-90 percent of their diet is bones, which they break by flying up high and dropping them on the rocks below to get at the marrow inside. Because of this, they used to have the name Ossifrage, which means “bone breaker”. They will occasionally also take small live prey that is killed with the same technique used to break bones, or by beating it to death with their wings.

Lammergeiers are very large birds with wingspans up to a little over 9 feet and weighing an average of almost 14 pounds! Here is a good comparison from Google Images to show just how big these guys are. The individual in the photo is a juvenile because of its very dark plumage.

As you can see from the pictures, these are exquisitely beautiful birds and it’s a shame that they are not often thought of when someone says “vulture”. The very word is associated with anything from death, uncleanliness, disgusting habits, to pure ugliness. So it’s nice we have the lammergeier around to disprove some of those assumptions.

References:
1. Tenenzapf, J. 2011. “Gypaetus barbatus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2015 at http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Gypaetus_barbatus/

2. “Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)” (On-line), Arkive. Accessed April 18, 2015 at http://www.arkive.org/lammergeier/gypaetus-barbatus/

Photo Links:
1. http://cdn1.arkive.org/media/54/54676D67-B0F8-45A6-902C-7D624E1E6885/Presentation.Large/Lammergeier-in-snow-at-feeding-site.jpg

2. http://cdn1.arkive.org/media/7A/7A435676-776F-495D-B560-02E5E52BB63E/Presentation.Small/Lammergeier-taking-off-with-large-bone.jpg

3. http://gallery.photo.net/photo/9824539-md.jpg