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Perhaps the Amazon's most improbable looking bird, the ungainly hoatzin holds a special place in rainforest lore. The hoatzin is an evolutionary offshoot, so unusual that this one species is placed in a family of its own, Opisthocomidae. (Compare for example about 360 species in the parrot family.) Recent studies suggest that the hoatzin is most closely related to cuckoos, and perhaps the turacos found in Africa.

The hoatzin has a relatively small neck and head with a pronounced loose crest of reddish-orange feathers. Around its red eyes is a patch of bare skin, colored bright blue. About the size of a large chicken, the roundish body bears dark green plumage above and pale tan below. The broad tail is tipped a pale tan.

Locally called shansho, the hoatzin is also called "stinkbird" because of its foul smell. The reek is derived from the symbiotic microbes that inhabit its gut to aid in digestion of its leafy food.

The hoatzin ranges throughout Amazonia wherever there is suitable habitat— thickly vegetated swamps, riverbanks and quiet lakes. It especially prefers areas where giant arums border water bodies. They generally avoid swift-moving rivers.

The hoatzin is exclusively vegetarian, and feeds on the leaves and shoots of plants that grow in swamps and marshes. The bird keeps a substantial quantity of its food in its large crop at the beginning of the digestive process. The weight hinders flight, so the hoatzin can appear somewhat clumsy, indeed comical, as it flutters inelegantly from one tree to the next.

Hoatzins' natural caution is abandoned during breeding season, which peaks during the high water levels of the rainy season. (The timing therefore varies across the region.) Groups of hoatzins collect in small bands with little to no pair bonding as is so common among other birds. The nests are invariably built over water, a loose bundle of sticks, placed 6 feet or higher among tree branches. The group participates in incubating the eggs and in caring for hatchlings. The female lays two to five eggs, colored creamy pink and spotted blue or brown. Incubation takes about four weeks. Young are fed regurgitated foliage from the crop.

Upon hatching, the young lack down and take a long time to develop, growing two successive coats of down in the process. The most remarkable thing about their development is the presence of a claw on each wing, enabling them to move among vegetation with considerable freedom. These prove to be lifesavers. When the chick is threatened, it flings itself out of the nest into water below. When the coast is clear, it swims back to its nest tree and clambers back up to the nest using the wing claws, and its beak and feet. This instinct, along with the claws, is lost by the time the chick is a few weeks old, when the plumage first starts to form.

Hoatzins are not in immediate danger of extinction, and are locally common in many spots throughout Amazonia. However, they are sensitive to habitat change, particularly drainage of wetlands and alteration of watercourses for dams or navigation. Due to this bird's bad tasting flesh, natives do not hunt the hoatzin.


Wikipedia: Hoatzin
Animal Diversity Web: Opisthocomus hoazin HOATZIN Opisthocomidae
Rainforest Conservation Fund: Hoatzin
Arthur Grosset's Birds: Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin)
Feather Weather: Cool Birds 1: the Hoatzin
Damn Interesting: The Stinkbird Enigma
Infoplease: hoatzin
Wildcam Guides: Hoatzin About Hoatzin
Yahoo Education: hoatzin
Save America's Forests: Hoatzin
Alaska Science Forum: Peculiarities of an Airborne Leafeater
Hughes, J. M. and A. J. Baker (1999) Phylogenetic relationships of the enigmatic hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) resolved using mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences. Mol. Biol. Evol. 16(9): 1300-1307
Sorenson, M. D. et al (2003) More Taxa, More Characters: The Hoatzin Problem Is Still Unresolved. Mol. Biol. Evol. 20(9):1484-1498
Grajal, A. et al (1989) Foregut Fermentation in the Hoatzin, a Neotropical Leaf-Eating Bird. Science 245: 1236 - 1238
ResearchPennState: "What's a Hoatzin"

Mainly photos
Digimorph: Opisthocomus hoazin, Hoatzin (skeleton)
Mangoverde: Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin Hoatzin (Hoazin huppé) Sacha Lodge
Webshots Outdoors: Hoatzin, Paul Bratescu hoatzin

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