It might surprise some people to learn that there are poisonous birds. They are a relatively recent scientific discovery but long recognised as such by the people of Papua, New Guinea where most of them come from. Note that they are poisonous and not venomous, they have no sting or teeth with which to administer the poison.
The majority of the poisonous birds are from the Pitohui (pronounced pit-o-hooey) a small colourful bird with six species which is found in Indonesia and Papua, New Guinea. The discovery that the Pitohui was poisonous was discovered by accident in 1992 when a scientist by the name of Jack Dumbacher was catching Birds of Paradise in mist nets. Accidental catches included Hooded Pitohui Pitohui dichrous. As Jack caught these small birds for release he was scratched. Licking the blood from his wound he noted that his lips and mouth went numb. The first time it happened he was puzzled but had no explanation. Further incidents led two and two being added together. It was the Pitohui which was poisonous.
Further research has shown that other members of the Pitohui are also poisonous and the toxicity varies over its range. The Hooded Pitohui are interesting in other ways too in that they appear to communally feed hatchlings and the young have no juvenile plumage, growing into adult feathering in the nest.
It is likely that some of other Pitohui may also be poisonous in parts of their range. More research will be required.
Distribution of the Hooded Pitohui
The Poisonous Bird List
Hooded Pitohui, Pitohui dichrous Very Poisonous
New Guinea and Yapen islands
Variable Pitohui Pitohui kirhocephalus Medium Poisonous
Indonesia, Papua New Guinea
Brown Pitohui Pitohui ferrugineus Least Poisonous
Black Pitohui Pitohui nigrescens
White Bellied Pitohui Pitohui incertus
Crested Pitohui Pitohui cristatus
Blue Capped Ifrita/Blue Capped Babbler Ifrita kowaldi
Little Shrike Thrush Colluricincla megarhyncha
Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea
Blue Capped Ifrita
The Rubbish Bird
As with so many species of bird it is the Scientific name that is all important as it is recognised internationally. Using the ‘English’ name can often cause confusion. For example the White Bellied Pitohui Pitohui incertus is also known as the Mottle Breasted Pitohui, Brown Wood Shrike, Mottled Pitohui and more without even venturing into the names bestowed upon it by the natives of New Guinea.
In spite of being known to be poisonous by the natives of New Guinea they are still eaten though great care is taken during the labour intensive preparation. The Pitohui is generally known by natives as the ‘Rubbish Bird’ in part because it emits a foul odour and when consumed is bitter to the taste and puckers the mouth. Some New Guinea tribes believe that the Pitohui can be eaten only after a proper period of mourning has elapsed for the dead bird.
Why are Pitohui and others Poisonous?
The Pitohui are not naturally poisonous. The poison comes from the food which they eat and in this case the Choresine Melyrid beetles which make up part of their diet. The beetles themselves are not naturally poisonous either but take it on board from some, as yet unidentified plant which they consume. The toxin is homobatrachotoxin, a steroidal alkaloid which though harmless to the birds becomes concentrated in their skin and feathers. This is similar to the Poison Dart Frogs Phyllobatesin Colombia South America which also take their Batrachotoxin from consuming Melyrid beetles.
On a weight for weight basis the Batrachotoxins are the most poisonous of all known naturally occurring substances.
The New Guinea Choresine beetles are known locally as ‘Nanisani’. Interesting then is the fact that is the same local name given to the Blue Capped Ifrita Ifrita kowaldi and refers to the effect of numbing and tingling which people experience after handling either the birds feathers or the beetles. So the people of New Guinea have been aware of the connection between beetle and bird for a long time.
It is likely that the poisonous birds have taken on this adaptation as a form of defence mechanism. The Hooded Pitohui in particular seems to be aware that it is a distasteful meal and tends to be very vocal and gregarious and the 'leader of the pack' of large mixed flocks of birds. There is the added benefit too that feather lice are not especially keen on the toxic feather and skin of the Pitohui.
Little Shrike Thrush
First Scientifically Confirmed Poisonous Bird
Other Poisonous and Dangerous Birds?
There are no known other poisonous birds but there are many which can be dangerous. A kick from an Ostrich is said to be able to disembowel a lion so could certainly make short work of a man. The Cassowary too can be very dangerous and has a huge pointed toenail on each foot especially as a defence mechanism. Birds can peck and bite and scratch and grab. Under normal circumstances none are likely to be a worry to anyone.
There are others of concern too. The Socotra Cormorant Phalacrocorax nigrogularisis a fairly inoffensive bird. True enough it has a big beak and is capable of delivering a very sharp peck. Although this is something which needs to be watched it is the birds passengers which are of concern. Socotra Cormorants usually carry a lot of ticks. Bites from these ticks will transmit the very nasty sicknesses such as Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, Alkhurma Virus Infection, Relapsing Fever and Erlichosis, and tick bite paralysis. There are a number of cases reported every year.
There are many of zoonotic diseases which will pass from birds to man. Mostly these are rare and providing that good hygiene is practised, washing hands after handling then problems would be minimised. This would include even the unlikely handling of Poisonous Birds such as the Pitohui.