Hooded Pitohui: Habitat, Diet, Venom & Facts

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia is an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting. She also has a BSChE.

The hooded pitohui, or Pitohui dichrous, is a colorful bird that inhabits the forests of New Guinea. It is one of the first documented poisonous birds. This lesson is about the hooded pitohui, its habitat and diet, and its venomous properties.

Look, But Don't Touch!

Imagine that you are an ecologist traveling through the forests of New Guinea, doing research on beautiful and colorful exotic birds. You go to check the mist nets that you've strung along the tops of ridges and find some birds of paradise, along with some other birds you have not seen lately.

As you extract the new birds, your hands begin to tingle. After a little while, they start to go numb. Your hand is cut from the bird's claws, so you put it in your mouth to lick away the blood. But then, your mouth begins to go numb, too!

You've just been poisoned by a neurotoxin from your new bird, which is a hooded pitohui. Chances are, you'll live, but you'd really like to know what's going on here!

A Hooded Pitohui

Description and Habitat

The hooded pitohui, or Pitohui dichrous, is a beautiful but poisonous bird. It is the first poisonous bird to be officially documented in scientific literature. It is about the size of a dove, averaging about nine inches in length, with black feathers on the head and an orange or red belly. They are members of the family Corvidae (as are crows and ravens) and they are passerines, or songbirds. They have sharp claws on their black legs, and a strong, black beak. Pitohui dichrous has two species which are close relatives, the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are also poisonous. Of the three related species, the hooded pitohui is the most toxic.

The bright colors of the hooded pitohui, along with a strong odor that it emits, are thought to be aposematic, or meant to ward off predators.

The hooded pitohui inhabits the rainforests and tropical jungles of New Guinea, which is an island located north of Australia. It inhabits the forests from the lower lands to sea level.

New Guinea
New Guinea

Venomous Properties and Diet

Hooded pitohuis are omnivorous birds, meaning that they eat a variety of both plant and animal foods, including berries and insects. Their diet also includes the New Guinea beetle, Choresine, of the Melyridae family. This beetle is the source of the bird's toxic properties, and is also believed to be the source of the lethal toxins found in the poison dart frogs of Colombia. These substances are batrachotoxins, or potent neurotoxic steroidal alkaloids. In high enough doses, such toxins can lead to paralysis and death.

The discovery of the bird's toxicity was made during the late 1980's in a scenario very similar to the one presented here in the first paragraphs by Jack Dumbacher, a graduate student in ecology. Dumbacher was assisting Bruce Beehler of the Smithsonian Institution in a study of the pitohui's mating behavior. He actually did remove hooded pitohuis from collection nets, and cut his hand on their claws. As his hand tingled and began to go numb, he licked the cut, then noticed that his mouth was also going numb, as though he'd eaten a very hot pepper. When he asked the local natives if they had experienced anything similar with local birds, they replied, ''Stay away from the rubbish bird!''

Dumbacher sent some of the pitohui's feathers back to the US for further testing by John Daly, a bio-organic chemist at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Daly injected low levels of the bird's toxins into mice, which caused partial paralysis. When he injected high levels, the mice had convulsions and died. Another twelve years passed before researchers, with the help of local New Guinea natives, were able to connect the toxic properties of the hooded pitohui to its consumption of the choresine beetle.

Mating and Reproduction

The hooded pitohui reproduces sexually and produces fertilized eggs. It is dioecious, meaning that it has separate male and female reproductive organs. Like other members of the Corvidae family, it participates in cooperative breeding. Both the males and the females help build the nest and feed the young. Few nests have been observed, but those nests that have been observered were built from leaves of climbing plants and branches of local trees.

The habitat of the hooded pitohui does not have seasonal changes. For this reason, nesting times depend on the weather and location. Newly hatched birds do not have the toxin coating their feathers and are therefore vulnerable. To protect themselves, they erect their head feathers to form an intimidating crest.

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