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What is a Hoatzin?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A hoatzin is a tropical bird found in South America. It is the national bird of Guyana and can be found widely distributed in swamps and marshes across its range. These birds are not known to be endangered or threatened. Birders who visit South America have an opportunity to see a number of unusual birds and the hoatzin is among the most unusual that birders will be able to see.

These birds are more closely linked to extinct bird species than any living birds, although they are genetically similar to cuckoos. They are believed to represent an earlier stage of bird evolution, as well as a missing link with prehistoric birds. This makes the hoatzin a topic of interest for scientists who are tracking the evolution of the bird, as well as birders who collect sightings of unusual specimens.

The hoatzin is approximately pheasant-sized, with a body in shades of brown, rust, gold, black, and cream. Their heads are bare and covered in blue skin, and they have distinctive maroon eyes. They are also known as stinkbirds for the distinctive odor produced by adults to drive off predators. This odor makes their flesh unpalatable and ensures that the birds are primarily ignored by potential predators, including humans.

Hoatzins have a very large crest of feathers on their heads and they are infamously noisy birds. In addition to making a range of calls, they also flap their wings in displays to communicate with other birds, and they are noisy fliers as well. Since the birds are relatively protected from predators by their stench, they did not need to adapt strong flying skills or the ability to move silently. This is convenient for birders on the hunt for new entries for their life lists.

Also known as Opisthocomus hoazin, these birds have several interesting and unusual characteristics. The chicks are born with small claws on their wings that allow them to climb trees while their wings are developing. The birds also have an unusually large crop that allows them to ferment plant materials after eating them in a form of predigestion. This means that the birds can derive nutrients from plants much like goats, cattle, and other ruminants. They also take longer to digest food and are not required to be constantly in search of meals. Eating two to three times a day usually satisfies nutritional needs, conserving energy for the hoatzin.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By donasmrs — On Dec 19, 2014

@ysmina-- Yea, the claw disappears by the time the hoatzin is an adult. And it helps the baby bird climb trees just as a cat uses her claws to climb trees. When the bird can fly successfully without it, there is no longer a need for it.

I just saw a documentary on TV where they showed newly hatched hoatzins at a zoo. The caretaker found and showed the claws on the wings. It may be hard to imagine but they really have them and it doesn't look so weird. It just extends out of the wings and it's not very large either. I think it's amazing. These kinds of things make me think about how God has created each creature which so much thought and planning. Without this extra claw, many hoatzin babies would be unable to survive due to accidents when trying to move and fly.

By ysmina — On Dec 19, 2014

@fify-- I saw hoatzins once in Peru. I agree with you, they're very cool looking birds. I like their crest and their orangish-brownish color.

I learned a little bit about them from the travel guide in Peru but I didn't know that these birds have claws on their wings when they're born. That's definitely the most interesting fact about them although I'm having a hard time imagining a claw on a wing. It must look very strange. I guess it's sort of like the egg tooth that some birds are born with on their beak. It helps the young survive and then falls off.

By fify — On Dec 18, 2014

I think that hoatzins are beautiful. They have a very unusual and different look. But I find them amazing. I saw them when I was in South America and watched them for minutes whenever they were around. I did not get close enough to notice any odor. But I'm glad that they have an odor because people would have made them go extinct a long time ago otherwise. They would have hunted them as game.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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