Of all the world’s unusual birds, one of the most fascinating is the beautifully coloured Hooded Pitohui, a songbird endemic to Papua New Guinea. As the world’s only scientifically confirmed poisonous bird, its vibrant plumage sends a warning to other animals to stay away – including humans.
A Dangerous Beauty
A member of the Oriolidae family of avians, the Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) has striking orange and black feathers, a solid black head with a crest (which raises when on alert) and deep red eyes. It is medium in stature (growing to about 23cm) but has a powerful beak in relation to its size.
However, while undeniably attractive, the bird’s feathers (and skin) are coated with an alkaloid called batrachotoxin, which is one of the most potent poisons on the planet.
Batrachotoxin is the same neurotoxin found in the poison dart frogs, which secrete the poison from their skin and are, like the Hooded Pitohui, aposematic (endowed with a vivid colouration as a warning to potential predators).
A Deadly Diet
Batrachotoxin is also found in the Choresine Beetle (from the family Melyridae), which forms part of the staple food source of the Hooded Pitohui. Scientists believe these unusual birds eat the beetles as a chemical defence against lice and other ectoparasties. When the females lay their eggs the poison is transferred from their feathers to the outside of the eggs, which serves as a protection from snakes.