Highly toxic birds

Hooded pitohui of New Guinea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons image by markaharper1, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The hooded pitohui is one of five species of bird found in New Guinea that has toxins that are potentially fatal to humans.

I wonder how many people will read the title of this article and think, “Yeah right, who’s ever heard of poisonous birds?” Well there are poisonous birds, and I will explain how this is so.

I’m going to focus here on five species that obtain their toxin in the exact same way as many species of poison dart frog in Central and South America. The toxin, called batrachotoxin, can paralyze or kill humans if it gets into the body.[2]

Batrachotoxin is one of the most powerful forms of poison produced in the animal kingdom, and isn’t produced by poison dart frogs or the birds discussed below. It’s produced by beetles in a taxonomic family called Melryridae, and is found within their bodies, and these other animals eat them. The poisons then are incorporated into the flesh and skin of the frogs, and into the flesh, skin, and feathers of the birds.[10]

It’s miraculous that there are some animals that can eat these insects and take advantage of their very potent toxins in this manner. Other examples of immunity to powerful toxins in the animal kingdom include king snakes being immune to rattlesnake venom, mongooses being immune to cobra venom, and some sea turtle species being able to eat highly toxic jellyfishes. 

There are two other species of bird that can be toxic to humans

Before discussing the five species of bird with batrachotoxins, I want to mention that two other bird species can be poisonous. One is the European common quail, and the other is the African spur-winged goose.[3]

The common quail found in many parts of Europe and Asia, and some found in Europe eat a poisonous plant in the late fall, around November to December, before migrating south to Africa for the winter. Which plant causes this is a mystery, although some who have eaten quail at this time of year have developed serious symptoms that may include muscle soreness, muscle breakdown, vertigo, and even convulsions. The illness caused by eating common quail has been named coturnism.[8][9]

Spur-winged geese live in wetlands of Africa south of the SaharaDesert and feed upon blister beetles, which are an insect species that produces a chemical used medicinally by humans for the purpose of wart removal. Some blister beetle species are extremely toxic, and the geese eat ones not quite as toxic – although it builds up in their bodies and renders the geese entirely inedible for humans. [7]

The five species that have batrachotoxins

Little shrikethrush
Credit: Wikimedia Commons image by Glen Fergus, CC BY-SA 2.5.

The little shrikethrush is another of the highly poisonous birds found on the island of New Guinea.

If you want to avoid these birds, then you’ll have to avoid the island of New Guinea. This large island sits just north of Australia and is mostly tropical, with some towering mountain peaks. It has many marsupial species, and other very unique wildlife, and much of the island is still unexplored by humans.

Beetles that produce batrachotoxins are hundreds of species found worldwide, mostly in tropical rainforests. Just as some live in South and Central America and are eaten by poison dart frogs, some live in New Guinea and are eaten by a few of the birds that live there.[10]

The little shrikethrush and the blue-capped ifrita are the first two. They are unrelated to each other, and unrelated to the other three. The blue-capped ifrita lives only in New Guinea. The little shrikethrush is found not only in New Guinea, but also in parts of nearby Indonesia and Australia. [3][6]

Pitohuis are six species, three of which are known to eat the batrachotoxin-containing beetles. The three species that eat them are the hooded pitohui, variable pitohui, and rusty pitohui. The hooded piohui lives only in New Guinea. The variable pitohui and the rusty pitohui live not just in New Guinea, but on some neighboring islands as well.[1][4][5]

Touching any of these five species would cause numbness and tingling. Getting any batrachotoxin into your system could cause paralysis and even death.[2]

Poisonous versus venomous

Poison dart frog
Credit: Image is from Wikipedia, by Factumquintus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dyeing dart frog, Dendrobates tinctorius, of South America.

Although these birds are poisonous, they are not venomous. Venom is a poison, and is produced by a gland in an animal’s body and injected into other animals in some way.[11] Snakes bites and scorpions stings are examples of venom produced within their own bodies and injected into their victims.

Besides these birds and poison dart frogs, there are plenty of other examples of poisonous animals that are not venomous. For example, hedgehogs bite into the poison glands of certain species of toad and then intentionally smear the poison onto the spines on their backs. A species of rat in Africa chews on a toxic plant and then smears the mixture onto its back. These animals do this to deter predators.[11]

So now you know that the island of New Guinea is the toxic bird capital of the world. It would certainly be an amazing place to watch and photograph wildlife, although if you ever go there I’d have to recommend not touching or eating any of the birds.