Bird Bios: Hoatzins are a Link to the Age of Dinosaurs

April 12, 2012
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Amazon River cruises are ideal for bird watchers and anyone else who enjoys nature travel. When you think of jungle birds, you may first picture toucans and parrots, but there are many other winged creatures living among the trees in the Amazon, including the hoatzin. This bird's many distinct characteristics have caused scientists to reclassify the species in different orders, since it doesn't seem to quite fit into any one group in particular. This peculiar bird is unique among the feathered animals that make their home in the Amazon jungle for a few reasons.

The hoatzin have an extremely large range, and can be found living along the water's edge in swampy areas around the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers throughout South America. They build their nests above the water, so their young can easily escape from predators. If they sense danger, adolescent hoatzins will dive into the water and swim under the surface until the threat is gone. They have two large claws on the end of each wing, enabling them to climb back into their nests when it is safe. Once they reach adulthood, the young birds lose their claws. Many scientists believe this indicates a direct relation between these birds and an ancient species from the time of the dinosaurs.

Hoatzins are also the only birds that can properly digest plant matter. They have a digestive system similar to those of cows, allowing them to feed exclusively on leaves and buds that grow in the swamps where they live. Part of the digestive system in the bird's throat uses bacterial fermentation to break down the plant material. Unfortunately for those with sharp sense of smell, this process results in a manure-like stench that has earned the hoatzin the nickname of “stinkbird.”

An adult hoatzin has a spiky four-inch crest of orange feathers atop its featherless blue head, and the reason why some locals call hoatzin "Punk Rock Birds." The body consists mostly of brown feathers, with highlights of whites and a rust-colored underbelly. There aren't any noticeable differences between male and female hoatzins. Their birdcalls sound more like the screeches of monkeys, but watch the ground if you hear these sounds, as you may see a group of these birds darting across the rainforest floor.


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