Discovery of the World’s First Poisonous Bird

The hooded pitohui — a small bird native to Papua, New Guinea — is the first and only scientifically-confirmed poisonous bird in the world. The people of New Guinea have long known to keep their hands off the harmless-looking bird after it was discovered in 1990. Ornithologist Jack Dumbacher was on the Pacific island looking for birds of paradise when he encountered the hooded pitohui. After inadvertently capturing some of the birds in a net, he tried to pull them out. They scratched and bit his fingers, and he instinctively put his hands in his mouth to soothe the pain. Almost immediately, Dumbacher felt his lips and tongue go numb, and then they started to burn, and continued to burn for hours. Later, suspecting the symptoms were caused by the birds, Dumbacher took one of their feathers and put it in his mouth. The numbness and ensuing pain quickly returned. He had unknowingly discovered the world’s first poisonous bird. The natives of New Guinea call them “garbage birds”, as they gave a foul odor when cooked, and were only consumed as a last resort, when no other food source was available. Dumbacher’s research identified the poison as batrachotoxin, the same toxin in the poison dart frogs of Colombia. Subsequent research showed that the hooded pitohui stores toxins both in its skin and feathers, as well as in its bones and internal organs, although in significantly lower concentrations. So, the next time you think about poisonous animals, snakes, frogs, spiders and fish won’t be the only ones that come to mind.