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Birds of poison

Hooded Pitohui  

There are many poisonous insects and reptiles all over the world. But have you ever heard of a bird that can be poisonous? The Hooded Pitohui (pronounced pit-o-hooey) is a songbird found in the rain forests of New Guinea, an island which lies in the South Pacific Ocean to the east of Indonesia. There are around six species of Pitohui of which the Hooded Pitohui is the most deadly.

Deadly beauty

The first poisonous bird to be documented, the Hooded Pitohui is a pretty bird with a brick-red belly and black head. It has strong legs and a powerful beak. The bird’s bright colours are an example of ‘aposematism’ or warning colours.

A neurotoxin called Homobatrachotoxin is found in its skin and feathers. A scratch or a sharp jab from its beak can make us go numb. If a large amount of this poison goes into our body, it can lead to paralysis and probably death. Feather lice too stay away from the Pitohui as Homobatrachotoxin is the most poisonous of all naturally occurring substances.

The Hooded Pitohui, like the Poison Dart Frogs of Columbia, gets its poison from the food that it eats- the poisonous Choresine Beetles. Declared to be the ‘Most Poisonous Bird’ by the Guinness Book of World Records, it was discovered in 1989 by Jack Dumbacher who was netting birds in New Guinea. Being a sociable bird that loved to flock with other birds, a couple of Hooded Pitohui let themselves be caught in the net. When Dumbacher tried to hold one, it gave him a vicious bite on his finger. On nursing his hurt finger by sucking on it, he found to his horror that his tongue and lips had turned numb.

There are a few other birds that have chemical mechanisms to defend themselves, but this is the first bird that is dangerous to man. It is not advisable to eat these birds, but when food is scarce, the people of New Guinea eat the bird which they term as the ‘Garbage bird’, as it gives a foul odour when cooked. The tribes of New Guinea believe that the Pitohui can be eaten only after a period of mourning for the dead bird. The skin and feathers are removed and the flesh is coated with charcoal and then roasted.

Did you know

The Hooded Pitohui has been evaluated as ‘Least Concern’ on the International Union Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

The other two varieties of pitohui are the “Rusty pitohui” and the “Variable pitohui”.

The Hooded Pitohui is also called by some New Guinea native tribes as ‘Wobob’– an itchy, uncomfortable skin disease that a person contracts when he or she comes in contact with the bird

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 12:00:27 PM |

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