Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin

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Roz Wade, Interpretation and Learning Officer, writes:

Working on the new displays for the Museum has introduced me to a whole range of new animals I knew little about before. Always a fan of the quirky, one of my favourites is the Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin. The outward appearance of this bird was enough to spark my interest: its crazy comb of feathers on top of the head; its featherless blue face; its overall rather prehistoric look. But then its biology is even more peculiar.

The Hoatzin is sometimes called the Stinkbird after the manure-like smell produced by their unusual digestive system. This bird is a folivore, a leaf-eater. Leaves are difficult to digest, requiring specialist bacteria to break them down and get at the nutrients and energy they contain. Hoatzins have an expanded crop acting as a fermentation chamber to break down plant tissues. This enlarged crop has consequences for the flight of these birds. There is only space for some pretty small flight muscles to attach to the sternum (breast bone), so they are not strong fliers. They are quite clumsy flying around their Amazon forest home.

The chicks look like they belong in Jurassic Park. They have a pair of claws on the bend in each wing – reminiscent of the claws on the early bird Archaeopteryx. The chicks will jump out of the nest into the river below if a predator attacks, and these claws help them to climb out and back up to the nest.

I’m looking forward to putting this specimen in the new bird display, where I will no longer just walk past it on the way to other animals, but look at it and wonder at its crazy lifestyle and appearance, and hope that with the new labels and interpretation more people can discover and appreciate this wonderful creature.

The Passenger Pigeon

Passneger PigeonsAlex Tomkins, Museum Apprentice, writes:

The Museum has nine Passenger Pigeons including a beautifully mounted specimen, I always get drawn to this bird because of all extinct species, the Passenger Pigeon had the most spectacular demise, hurtling from a population of billions to a population of exactly zero in less than a hundred years. Why and how is a question I and others have asked many times.
The Passenger Pigeon or Wild Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was abundant in North America until it was eradicated in the wild in 1900, then finally altogether on September 1st 1914 at 1pm. The only animal on Earth to have an exact time of extinction, the last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo.
There were so many Passenger Pigeons in flocks that trees would often fall when they roosted and people compared there enormous sounds and screeches to “threshing machines running under full headway”. The flocks were so thick that hunting was easy—even waving a pole at the low-flying birds would kill some. Still, harvesting for subsistence didn’t threaten the species’ survival. But after the Civil War came two technological developments that set in motion the pigeon’s extinction: the national expansions of the telegraph and the railroad. They enabled a commercial pigeon industry to blossom, fueled by professional sportsmen who could learn quickly about new nestings and follow the flocks around the continent. The professionals and amateurs together out flocked their quarry with brute force. They shot the pigeons and trapped them with nets, torched their roosts, and asphyxiated them with burning sulphur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn. Ultimately, the pigeons’ survival strategy—flying in huge predator-proof flocks—proved their undoing.

Hawaiian Honeycreepers and O’os

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr Michael Brooke, Curator of Birds in the Museum of Zoology writes:

As Curator of Birds, I have the privilege of being able to pull open drawers of bird skins in the Bird Room. Yes, the birds may be a little fusty and smell of moth balls, yes, they may have evidently fallen off their perches – but how evocative! None more so than the drawers of Hawaiian birds, mostly collected around 140 years ago. Many of these are tiny red or yellow honeycreepers, jewels of the forest whose wild populations have drastically dwindled in the intervening years as avian malaria, arriving in the archipelago in the early part of the twentieth century, devastated the native birds of lowland Hawaii. In nearby drawers are examples of the now extinct species of o’o. Once upon a time, individual o’os were caught by native Hawaiians, plucked of the bright yellow feathers of the underwing, and released to fly another day. Then the o’os and honeycreepers were sufficiently abundant that they could supply an estimated 450,000 feathers for the ceremonial cloak of King Kamehameha. Today the o’os are gone but not forgotten. A recent DNA study, using specimens from the Museum, established that, while in appearance the birds seem close to the honeyeaters of Australia, they are actually allied to various North American birds.

I close the drawer and almost weep at what we have lost.

Archaeopteryx cast

Archaeopteryx cast

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales and Poet in Residence at the Museum of Zoology in Spring 2013, writes:

I am poet-in-residence in the Museum of Zoology for 10 precious days. In my first hour in the exhibition gallery I saw what is still my favourite treasure. It is the fossil of a bird, with a perfectly preserved impression made by its wing-feathers, like when you play ‘Making Angels’ in the snow, lying on your back and sweeping your arms to make wings. The Archaeopteryx is the earliest bird fossil, the size of the magpie that just left its impression in the snow on my lawn. The snow-shadow will melt. Stone has held the Archaeopteryx for millions of years, like a photograph of the Jurassic period. It makes me dizzy, just thinking about it.

Jerdon’s Courser

Jerdon’s Courser

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Prof Rhys Green of the Ecology and Conservation Science Research Group in the University of Cambridge Department of Zoology writes:

A remarkable and poignant specimen held in the Museum is the preserved skin of a Jerdon’s courser, a bird shot in southern India in the mid-19th Century. The species was discovered then by British naturalists, recorded a few times in the second half of the century and not seen again for over 80 years .  During this time, a tombstone was erected to the species’ memory in an exhibition area at the Bronx Zoo because it was assumed to be extinct.  In 1986 it was rediscovered living in one small area of scrub jungle in central Andhra Pradesh.  In the 2000s an Indian PhD student working with me found the species several other sites nearby.  To do this he used strips of powdery soil laid on the ground which take the imprint of footprints of any animal which runs across. Measurements of the toes of the Cambridge specimen, and others elsewhere, helped to establish the method for identifying the species leaving the footprints.  However, in the mid2000s clearing of scrub jungle for an irrigation canal and by people who moved into the area after being displaced by the construction of a reservoir in another valley, removed or disturbed much of the species’ known habitat.  There have been no confirmed records of it since 2009.   It is a beautifully adapted animal which hides away under a thorn bush by day and runs around on its long legs in the scrub jungle at night  hunting termites and other tiny insects on the ground in open glades where just enough light penetrates for its huge eyes to detect prey.  I wonder how it  achieves this amazing feat.  It may now already be too late for anyone ever to find out.