The Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) is a beautiful and colorful exotic rainforest bird. It is believed to be the most poisonous avian on Earth with the toxin stored in its feathers and skin. It is native to the island of New Guinea and the nearby island of Yapen, which lie in the South Pacific Ocean to the east of Indonesia and north of Australia. By the way, the bird’s name is pronounced as ‘hood-ed pi-too-eey’.
The bird belongs to the only known genus of poisonous birds, the “Pitohui”. There are about six species of Pitohui, of which the Hooded Pitohui is the most venomous. They are members of the family Corvidae (same as crows and ravens), and they are passerines or songbirds. The songbird has two relatives, the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are also deadly. Of the three cousins, the hooded pitohui is the most toxic.
How Was it Discovered?
The hooded pitohui is one of the world’s first documented poisonous birds. It was discovered by a researcher, American ornithologist, John “Jack” Dumbacher, with the Smithsonian Institution by accident when he was scratched and bitten (lacerated and punctured) by hooded pitohuis when they were being extracted from the mist net he had set to catch birds of paradise in 1989 in the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. Dumbacher’s finger started to sting and began to go numb. He decided to suck on the cut to clean it and put his finger in his mouth to lick away the blood. After a minute, his lips and tongue started to go tingle, burn, and go numb.
Later, Dumbacher took a feather from the songbird and put it directly on his tongue. He found that the burning and tingling effects lasted for hours. When he returned to the United States, Dumbacher took some feathers of the bird to chemist John Daly at the National Institute of Health. Daly found out that the feathers contained batrachotoxin, an extremely powerful steroidal alkaloid poison. It was largely neurotoxic, and even relatively small doses can lead to paralysis of all muscles, cardiac arrest, and then death.
Why is the Bird Toxic?
The hooded pitohui acquires the toxins from eating Choresine, a Melyridae beetle. The potent neurotoxin is called homobatrachotoxin. Homobatrachotoxin is a member of a class of compounds collectively called batrachotoxins and is the most poisonous of all naturally occurring substances. The toxin homobatrachotoxin (hBTX) is concentrated mainly in the bird’s skin and feathers, while present throughout its body. hBTX is one of the most potent poisons that prevents nerve cells from producing signals, which in turn leads to paralysis.
hBTX causes numbness and tingling with minimal exposure and paralysis or probably death in case of extreme exposure. The toxins are believed to act as a chemical defense, both against ectoparasites, such as lice, and visual predators such as snakes, raptors, or humans. While other bird species have chemical self-defense systems to keep predators from consuming them, this is the only bird that is toxic to humans to date. There is no known antidote developed for this poison.
The songbird’s toxins are similar to those found in poison dart frogs (most famously, Phyllobates terribilis – the Golden Poison Frog) found in Colombia, South America. Both these animals absorb the poisons from their diets. Many scientists believe that beetles (hooded pitohui) and ants (poison dart frogs) are the main sources of the poison.
Habitat of the Song Bird
The songbird is found in forests at a height of 2,000 meters or 6,699 feet. However, it is most common in low mountains and hills at 350 to 1,700 meters.
It is a medium-sized bird with a brick-red or orange belly with a jet black head, and black wings and tail. It has a powerful black beak and strong legs. The bird’s bright colors are an example of ‘aposematism’ or warning colors.
Hooded Pitohui Fact File
The hooded pitohui is 8.7–9.1 in (22 to 23 cm) long and weighs 2.3–2.7 oz (65–76 g). It is an omnivorous bird feeding on fruits, seeds, insects, and other invertebrates. Its black and bright orange feathers allow predators to spot them easily, and identify them as poisonous. Their strong and sour odor also serves to ward off enemies. Some other New Guinean birds have developed similar markings to fool predators into thinking they are pitohuis.
The songbird is a social bird living in family groups. It frequently joins and are even leaders of mixed-species foraging flocks. While the males are called cocks, the females are called hens. A baby is called a chick. The birds produce fertilized eggs and are dioecious. They are extremely protective about their nest, and chicks are fed insects and berries.
Do you know that New Guinea native tribes call the hooded pitohui “Wobob,” which means the bird whose bitter skin puckers the mouth? The term also refers to an itchy and uncomfortable skin disease that one contracts on contact with the songbird. The birds are also known as “rubbish or garbage birds” because of the foul odor that results from touching them, and also when cooking them. Rarely do people eat them, and only during times of food scarcity.
Sounds of Hooded Pitohui
The songbird makes a variety of calls, comprising an array of wolf-whistles, clicks, and oriole-like warbles. The collection of whistles can slur up or down with hesitant pauses. The bird’s voice is usually lower, and it uses an ensemble of songs to communicate.
Let us now listen to the amazing calls and songs of the hooded pitohui.
Conservation Status of Hooded Pitohui
The hooded pitohui is common in its native places and is currently not at risk of extinction, with the population trend being stable.
God Created All Creatures Out of Love
The Almighty One created everything out of love with a plan for interconnection and interdependence built into it. Though the hooded pitohui is a poisonous bird, its toxicity helps its survival in its harsh environment. God has created everything for a purpose, and the bird plays an essential role in the functioning of its native ecosystem.
Browse our Factopedia section for unusual, random, and mind-blowing facts about some of our planet’s iconic natural wonders and animals, and praise our Heavenly Father for His intelligent design.