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Hooded Pitohui – The Only Poisonous Bird In The World

Birds are not usually dangerous to humans, but there is one exception – a bird that is actually poisonous.

In the heart of the dense and vibrant rainforests of New Guinea resides a captivating enigma – the Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous).

This black-and-rusty bird is the first poisonous bird species ever documented. There is not much information available, but we have gathered here all the interesting tidbits you might need to know.

 

Identification

The Hooded Pitohui is a distinctive medium-sized songbird with a slightly rounded lower body. They measure 8.5-9.2 inches long and weigh around 2.3-2.7 ounces. Males and females look the same, both dressed in black and rust-colored feathers. In certain lighting, the black in their plumage may have a brown or bluish-green sheen to it.

Their back and underside are mostly reddish brown, whereas their upperwings, tail, head, chin, upper breast, and throat are black. The bird’s coloration makes it look like they have a hood on, hence the name. Bill and legs are also black, whereas eyes are generally dark brown.

Juvenile Hooded Pitohuis look similar to adults with their black and rusty plumage. However, some parts of their plumage that is black in adults is tinged with brown, such as the tail and wings.

 

Vocalizations

Hooded Pitohui songs and calls mostly consist of various whistles. Their songs are variable, consisting of three to seven whistles, characterized by fluid ascending or descending slurs intercepted by pauses. Generally, their songs start with two similar notes and an ascending slur.

Their calls include tuk tuk w’oh, tuw’uow, woiy-woiy, tiuw tow whistled in a descending slur, and hui-whui-whooee.

 

Food

Hooded Pitohui’s diet is omnivorous, although they showcase a particular fondness for fruits, particularly figs. The plant-based part of their diet also includes grass seeds.

However, they won’t say no to an occasional insect or two. From beetles and spiders to earwigs, bugs, flies, and caterpillars, they may even go after a small vertebrate.

An interesting aspect of the Hooded Pitohui’s foraging behavior is its adaptability in exploring all levels of the forest, from the forest floor to the towering canopy. These birds often forage in small groups. Occasionally, they partake in mixed-species foraging flocks.

 

Nesting and Eggs

Hooded Pitohuis’ exact breeding and nesting habits are shrouded in secrecy due to the bird’s penchant for high canopy nesting, rendering observation and study a difficult task. Their nests have been discovered from October to February. The one that was discovered and researched was situated 7 feet above the ground, on thin branches. The open cup was woven of vines and lined with finer ones.

Within this carefully woven cradle, the bird lays a clutch of one to two eggs, each measuring between 1.06 to 1.29 inches in length and 0.81 to 0.87 inches in width. Hooded Pitohui eggs are creamy or have a pinkish hue and are adorned with brown to black, sometimes gray blotches and spots. Markings are generally concentrated toward the larger end of the egg.

The incubation period or who incubates remains currently unknown. However, researchers have observed more than two birds defending the nest from potential intruders and taking care of the offspring. This suggests a cooperative breeding system.

As the nestlings emerge, covered in a soft coat of white down, the nurturing process takes center stage. Acorn-shaped red berries and insects become essential components of their diet. If intruders approach the nest, they put on a display to scare them away.

 

Current Situation

Hooded Pitohuis range throughout the islands of New Guinea, especially the main island. You can find them in rainforests, secondary growth, forest edges, and sometimes even in mangrove forests on hills and low mountains. They generally stay within 1,150-5,580 feet of elevation but can stray to sea level or even up to 6,600 feet.

Hooded Pitohuis are regarded as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List. Although their exact numbers are unknown, they are widespread and adaptable, since they were also found in disturbed habitats rather than only in undisturbed areas.

 

Facts

  • The Hooded Pitohui is the world’s first poisonous bird on record. The most toxic part of their bodies are their skin and feathers. Research suggests that they get their toxicity from the food they eat rather than producing it themselves, namely from beetles of the genus Choresine.
  • The toxin Hooded Pitohuis possess is called batrachotoxin (BTX). If you happen to touch the bird, it will feel like your hands are on fire. However, should you ingest the poison, it may lead to paralysis and even death.
  • Some scientists suggest that the toxins rub off on eggs and nestlings, providing them extra protection against parasites and predators.
  • Many other species, even those that are non-toxic, have evolved to look similar to Hooded Pitohuis to avoid predators since predators tend to avoid well-defended species.
  • Now, this is a step further, but if you were to cook a Hooded Pitohui, it would smell and taste like garbage.

 

Similar Species

All pitohuis in the genus Pitohui and family Oriolidae (Old World Orioles) look very similar to the Hooded Pitohui. This includes the Northern Variable Pitohui, Raja Ampat Pitohui, and Southern Variable Pitohui. Both the Northern and Southern Variable Pitohui, as the name suggests, have many subspecies with differences in range and plumage.

However, due to available information, it is difficult to differentiate between Pitohuis that don’t have those differences in plumage.

Even though they look similar to the birds we knew as orioles, ours are New World orioles, part of the blackbird family.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a Hooded Pitohui kill a human?

Generally speaking, a Hooded Pitohui cannot kill a human and will only result in a burning feeling, numbness, and irritation. However, should you ingest a bigger quantity, it can lead to paralysis or even death.

How is the Hooded Pitohui poisonous?

Hooded Pitohui gets its poison from its diet rather than producing it themselves.

How does the Hooded Pitohui get its poison?

Hooded Pitohui gets its poison from its diet. They get the toxin called batrachotoxin from ingesting specific beetles.

Where does the Hooded Pitohui live?

Hooded Pitohuis live in the rainforests, secondary-growth forests, and forest edges throughout the islands of New Guinea.

 

Featured image by Benjamin Freeman via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

About the Author

Heleen Roos

Heleen has loved the outdoors and nature since childhood and has always been fascinated with birds, leading her to research more about them. She has accumulated a lot of knowledge about their behaviors and habits through birdwatching tours and her own explorations. Her goal is to share the most interesting and useful facts about them.

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