Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet
Conservation Status: Safe for Now
There are six sub-species of Pitohuis. The level of toxicity varies by sub-species, geographic location, and diet. Some individuals from some populations do not have toxin. The most colorful, the Hooded Pitohui, P. dichrous, and Variable Pitohui, P. kirhocephalus, are the most toxic.
At the Aquarium
Information about this bird which is not on exhibit at the Aquarium is supplied for reference.
Native to New Guinea
Hooded Pituhois live in the tropical rainforests and jungles of New Guinea from the lower forests to sea level.
Hooded Pitohui, members of the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, jays, etc.), are beautiful passerines, i.e., songbirds. Their wing, head, and tail feathers are black and their back and belly feathers orange. They have black legs ending in sharp claws and a black beak that is strong and sharp. Male and female birds have the same coloration. When threatened, these birds erect their head feathers to form a crest.
Adult birds average 23 cm (9 in) in length and weigh about 65 g (2.3 oz).
Diet and Feeding
These birds are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of berries and insects such as ants. Scientists are currently studying whether the toxin also comes from a small beetle that the birds eat, (Choresine spp,). These New Guinea beetles are distant relatives of a family of beetles 15,289 km (9,500 mi) away in Central and South America from which poison dart frogs get some of their toxicity.
Since New Guinea does not have marked seasonal changes, nesting time varies according to location and weather patterns. Only one nest of Hooded Pitohuis has been observed. The nest was cup-shaped and composed of tendrils of climbing plants that had been intertwined on a triangular base of branches. At this nest the birds were observed engaging in cooperative breeding in which at least four adults fed the nestlings. Cooperative breeding has been observed in other Corvids.
Nestlings apparently grow their adult plumage quickly. When threatened, they rise up and crest just as adults do. Although the coloration of their feathers mimics that of adults, their plumage contains only a small amount of toxin, far less than that of the toxic adults. Lacking toxin, the young birds may rely on their striking coloration for protection. It is believed that toxin may be transferred to the nestlings and the nest from the belly and back feathers of the adults. Snakes that prey on eggs and nestlings have been observed eating eggs laid by Hooded Pituhois and then rapidly regurgitating them.
Hooded Pitohuis are often found flocking with other birds including Raggiana Birds of Paradise (Paradissae raggiana spp). This species, like the pitohuis, does not taste very good. Scientists believe that this association is a type of cooperative relationship in which protection is gained by flocking with the highly unpalatable pitohuis.
These birds advertise their bad taste by emitting a strong, unique odor that may be a warning smell, and with bright colors. Striking color patterns and smells meant to warn off predators are called aposematic.
The diet of Pituhois is the source of the toxin, homoBTX, that settles in the dander, skin, and feathers of the birds, concentrating in the breast, belly, and leg feathers. Contact with these birds produces a very unpleasant tingling and long-lasting numbing effect, sneezing, and burning, watering eyes. Research studies have shown that the toxin appears to be a protection against parasites such as lice, and also against predators, including humans. Another New Guinea bird, the Blue-capped Ifrita, (Ifrita kowaldi), also carries the toxin in its skin and feathers. It is found in a mountainous area above 1,500 m (4,930 ft).
Common in New Guinea, Hooded Pitohuis are not listed as a species of concern.
Some New Guinea tribes people believe that a Hooded Pitohui can be eaten if it is held in the hands and mourned as if it were a dead child. However, a ‘mourner’ must be certain to mourn long enough to make the bird palatable!
Some New Guinea native tribes call the Hooded Pitohui the ‘Wobob’, which refers to an itchy, uncomfortable skin disease that comes from contact with the bird, and also as “rubbish birds” because of their unique odor and the disagreeable sensations that result from touching them. Pitohui cannot be eaten without a great deal of preparation to rid the skin and flesh of the highly unpalatable and dangerous toxin.
Local traditional New Guineans led scientists to the tiny choresine beetles that Hooded Pituhoi eat. They identified the beetles with the word ‘nanisani’, the name they use to describe the tingling and numbing sensation of the lips and face that result from contacting both beetles and bird feathers.