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Hoatzin Bird



The strange Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) might not be as pretty as toucans, tanagers, and macaws, but it definitely wins the prize for the oddest bird in the Amazon. Nearly as large as a turkey, the Hoatzin spends most of its time loafing around the edges of oxbow lakes in the Amazon rainforest. Sitting in bushes and small trees that grow at the water’s edge, Hoatzins makes odd grunting noises as they nip off leaves from the surrounding vegetation. They don’t seem to pay much attention to people watching them although will attempt to clumsily flap their way to a nearby branch if observers get a little too close for comfort.

This strange bird only occurs in the Amazon jungle and has no close relatives. Indeed, its heritage has been a constant subject of debate among ornithologists since its discovery. It has been placed with the cuckoos, turkey-like birds, and was even considered to be some type of ancient prehistoric bird for a time. Although studies have indicated that the Hoatzin is not a living fossil, it still appears to belong to an old lineage of birds that may have no close relatives. One recent study of Hoatzin fossils showed that it may even have its origin in Africa and could have reached South America by floating across the Atlantic Ocean on clumps of vegetation!

Whatever the truth may be about its evolutionary history, the strange Hoatzin is one bird that should be seen by all guests of the Rainforest Expeditions eco-lodges.

Here are some interesting facts about the Hoatzin:
  • Indigenous people called it a “pheasant”: The word “Hoatzin” was used for the bird by indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon and can be roughly translated as “pheasant”.

  • An herbivore: The Hoatzin is one of the only primarily herbivorous birds on the globe. It rarely if ever takes insect prey and spends most of its time picking out and eating succulent leaves from lakeside vegetation. Like other familiar herbivores such as cows, the Hoatzin makes use of bacteria to help digest the plant matter it consumes. It has an enlarged crop that is used for this purpose.

  • Poor flyer: Hoatzins rarely fly. They are so reluctant to take to the air because they can barely fly. Whereas most birds have strong breast muscles used for flapping their wings, those of Hoatzins are quite small.

  • Stinkbird: This is another commonly used name for the Hoatzin in many parts of its range and is a reflection of their natural “eau de parfum”. Hoatzins don’t have a particularly pleasant odor due to the fermenting processes that take place in their crops.

  • Born with clawed wings!: Hoatzins were believed to be prehistoric by some people due to the claws that young birds sport on their wings. This is an adaptation to keep them from falling into the water as they clamber around lakeside vegetation.
How to see a Hoatzin during a Peruvian jungle tour:
  • Visit an oxbow lake in the Amazon jungle: Since Hoatzins only occur around oxbow lakes, you have to visit one of these calm bodies of water to see this strange bird species. They are commonly seen on just about every visit to oxbow lakes near the eco-lodges run by Rainforest Expeditions.

  • Listen for the odd grunting noises they make: Despite their large size, Hoatzins can be surprisingly inconspicuous. They usually give themselves away with unique “shushing” or grunting noises. Listen for this distinct sound and watch for this odd bird as it clumsily moves through the bushy, lakeside vegetation.
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