June 6, 2023


pets keep it coming

Toxic Birds

2 min read

There are several species of birds that are toxic. They do not inject venom like snakes, but instead, produce toxins that reside in their feathers and skin, similar to the defenses of some Colombian poison dart frogs. Two of the birds reside exclusively in New Guinea, these being the pitohui and the ifrita.

Pitohui is actually the name of the genus, and there are six species within this genus: Pitohui kirhocephalus, or the Variable Pitohui; Pitohui dichrous, or the Hooded Pitohui; Pitohui incertus, or the White-bellied Pitohui; Pitohui ferrugineus, or the Rusty Pitohui; Pitohui cristatus, or the Crested Pitohui; and Pitohui nigrescens, or the Black Pitohui.

Pitohuis are omnivorous, eating both insects and vegetation. The skin and feathers of these birds contain batrachotoxins. These are used as defenses against parasites that would live on their skin and feathers, or against predators such as snakes, humans, and raptors, which would want to eat the bird. In fact, the Papua New Guineans call these birds “rubbish birds” because they are inedible.

Interestingly, the birds do not produce the toxins themselves; instead they come from a beetle that the birds eat. The other bird that is toxic, the ifrita, also gets its toxins by eating the same beetles.

The ifrita meaures 16.5 cm long. It is carnivorous, eating insects that dwell on tree trunks and branches. The bird is yellowish brown, with a blue and black crown.

Western scientists discovered the pitohui’s toxicity while trying to free the birds from nets that they had set up to catch different birds. John Dumbacher, when he was a doctoral candidate, was one of the researchers that experienced the neurotoxins first hand. The scientists freed the birds from the nets, but, in the process, got cut by the birds’ beaks and claws. The toxin caused “numbness, burning, and sneezing on contact.”

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