Hoatzin-The strange bird of South America


Picture of a Hoatzin bird on a tree.

Just what are “they”?

Well, they are neither pheasants, fowls, nor cuckoos. They are hoatzins.

And so different are they from other birds that some ornithologists classify them in a family all to themselves.

If you’ve never heard of the hoatzin, though, this no doubt is due to the fact that they live only along the tropical rivers of South America.

Nevertheless, some of its numerous nicknames may ring a bell.

They range from colorful Cigana (Gypsy) to embarrassing Stinking Bird, and from eminent Governor van Batenburg’s Turkey to humbling Crazy Hannah.

Completing the list of this bird’s aliases are Crest Fowl, Canje Pheasant, and the name the Amerindians gave it, Zezieras.

Early reports on this bird called it,

 “the most peculiar of all birds inhabiting the South American forests.” 

Since about 650 different species of bird inhabit Suriname alone, perhaps this was somewhat of a hyperbole.

Nevertheless, the passing of time and new findings have not altered man’s fascination for this remarkable creature.

Why, during the last 25 years, scientists have often lowered their binoculars in old-fashioned puzzlement and exclaimed that hoatzin is “amazing,” “unique,” “completely different,” “strange,” “unusual,” and “most remarkable.”

But just why does hoatzin merit these adjectives?

Appearance


Picture of a Hoatzin bird from behind on a tree.

The bird is about 60 centimeters long, roughly the size of a pheasant, with its big, round-tipped wings and long, broad tail accounting for most of its size.

Its plumage is rich with autumn colors of chestnut brown, rusty red, and glossy olive-green streaked with black and buffy white.

But higher up the colors change.

A long, skinny neck supports a small head. Its crimson eyes are framed by a bare skin of cobalt blue.

What the head may lack in size is compensated for by its striking buff-colored crest.

With every slight move of its head or touch of a breeze, the crest plumes wave like a fan.

Food and Storage


Hoatzin bird eating leaves.

The bird is a folivorous bird( or herbivorous bird ), thus feeds on leaves, buds, pulpy seeds, and fruits.

But their favorite food is the mokomoko, or arum—a native plant with giant, arrowhead-shaped leaves.

The bird tears into the tough leaves with zest, gulping down big tatters to fill up its crop.

Crop?

Yes, the crop is a pouch 50 times as big as the bird’s stomach.

There the bird stores its food, where it soaks and undergoes preliminary digestion.

Nesting habits


During the rainy season—breeding time in hoatzin country.

Their nest is a simple platform, crudely constructed of twigs as thick as pencils.

Measuring about 30 centimeters in diameter, it has no soft bedding.

And it is usually such a loosely built affair that you could see the small eggs right through the bottom of the nest.

Usually you’ll see two to five off-white eggs, freckled with brown and pinkish spots, in one of these nests.

They take about 28 days to incubate.

But the mother and father have found a way to fight the tedium.

They take turns in brooding the eggs.

The birds usually exchange brief but formal bows before they shift places.

And once in place, they are courageous defenders of their offspring.

Mouse opossums, tree boas, birds of prey, and squirrel monkeys all have an appetite for the eggs—and the young ones themselves!

But the intruders are greeted by the warning cries of the intrepid adult birds, poised for attack!

Stinking Bird!


They usually have a disagreeable musty smell. 

Many have held their nose when too close to the bird and aired their opinion in agreement: 

Just where does the smell come from?

It is not the meat that is smelling, but the contents of the crop or foregut where fermentation occurs . 

The deep conviction by many on this aspect may well be the lifesaver for this otherwise vulnerable creature.

Hoatzin may have a foul odor but, come to think of it, to survive in a world where many animals are heading for extinction is an accomplishment in itself.