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Pitohui Birds

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In 1989, Smithsonian biologist Jack Dumbacher netted a bird with an orange body and black wings and head. After handling the bird and wiping his mouth with his hand, Dumbacher noticed that his fingers and lips were going numb. The pitohui1 are small, social songbirds that live in Papua New Guinea. They are generally about 23 centimetres long with strong legs and a powerful beak. 1989 was the first time anyone had scientifically realised the birds' toxicity.

So What?

The pitohui is one of New Guinea's most widely spread birds, but this was the first time anyone had noticed its poisonous nature. It is, in fact, the only known genus of poisonous bird. At least three species of pitohui have a strong poison in their skin and feathers. This toxin is used only as a defense mechanism versus predatory snakes and hawks.

Interestingly, the poison the bird uses is strikingly similar to the toxin used by the poison arrow frogs of Central and South America. The poison, an alkaloid known as homobatrachotoxin, causes numbness or a stinging sensation upon physical contact and has a bad taste. Scientists are almost certain that the poison derives from something in the birds' diet, as this would explain the discrepancy in toxicity between birds of different species or locale. The area where the birds' and frogs' diets coincide is insects, and scientists are looking there first for clues. At any rate, the pitohui is far less toxic than most species of poison frog.

Of the three poisonous species, the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous), the one Dumbacher found, is the most brightly coloured and by far the most poisonous. It is followed in both categories by the variable pitohui (Pitohui kirhocephalus) and the rusty pitohui (Pitohui ferrugineus) in that order. Also, depending on their habitat - and, therefore, diet - the crested pitohui (Pitohui cristatus) and black pitohui (Pitohui nigrescens) may be toxic as well.

Unless someone decides to actively ingest all of a bird's toxin, it is unlikely that the bird will do much harm to a human. The New Guinean natives rarely eat pitohui because they have to be prepared too carefully (skinning, washing, etc) and because the taste is unpalatable. In fact, local tribes never hunt the so called 'rubbish bird' because of its culinary uselessness.

1Say it, don't spray it, but it is PIHT-oh-hoo-ee, like you're spitting.

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