I’m a bit of a part time twitcher, an amateur birdiologist, if you will. British birds are wonderful and hold their own private mysteries, but if you want to see some really weird birds, you have to fly further afield. This feathered wonder – the potoo – resides in the humid forests of Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
The potoo is a relative of nightjars and, if fossil records are to be believed, his kin were spread quite widely across the world in the distant mists of time.
Despite his look of constant surprise spread across his plate sized eyes, you’re not likely to see the little buggers very often. The potoo is nocturnal in nature and an expert at both standing still and hiding.
During the day, the potoo just sit on an old wooden stump, as bold as brass in the clear light of day. Their confidence comes from their incredible ability to blend in with bark. Another interesting adaptation are the small slits in its eyelids; these allow the potoo to detect approaching shadows, even as it dozes in the balmy jungle warmth.
Additionally, the slits mean that the potoo doesn’t have to keep opening those massive eyes of his; otherwise they’d act as a homing beacon for all predators in a 6 mile radius.
Look at him here, he looks like a slightly over-egged Disney character:
They don’t even bother to build nests, they just lay a solitary egg in a notch on top of their chosen stump and sit as still as they can for as long as they can.
The potoo are actually a group of bird species in the family Nyctibiidae, in all there are seven extant species. The biggest is the great potoo, which grows up to 58 cm long.
Here’s a recording of a potoo calling mournfully into the night, if you didn’t know how hilariously goggle-eyed it was, it might even sound a bit creepy. The call has earned the potoo a nickname – poor-me-ones – because the song sounds so very, very sad.
The potoo’s call has, perhaps unsurprisingly, made it into the folklore of some Amazonian tribes. This is from a paper called “Textuality, territory, and ontology among Amazonian peoples,” written by Michael Uzendoski:
“Iluku was sleeping with her brother, the moon, but when they were discovered, the moon left the earth to escape punishment. Iluku tried to follow her lover, but her flaw of being careless caused her to fall behind. The ladder that the moon-man had constructed fell apart and so Iluku became trapped here on earth.
Separated from her husband, during nights of a full moon, Iluku cries out to her husband because she can ‘see his face.'”
If you want to see these big mouthed birdies in action, here’s a video compilation of the common potoo, northern potoo and the great potoo flying and hiding in Costa Rica. They surely are a good looking bird:
If a bird ever leant itself to becoming a meme more than a potoo does, I would like to meet that bird. They aren’t always particularly funny, but here are some of the “best.” (Don’t get your hopes up though, the one above is probably the funniest, and I don’t even know what it says):