From the chilly regions of Antarctica to the boiling desert climate of the Sahara, there are some flora and fauna species, that are unique to their habitat. And then there are some animals that are unique to this time period and seem to be from a time long ago. Animals like the alligator gar and the frilled shark, are the missing link between the reptilian race of dinosaurs and the animals that inhabit the Earth today.
The Hoatzin has a pheasant-like appearance with some unusual traits. A small head, long thin neck and heavy body make up its build. But it has a regal, spiky crest at the top of its head. In fact the presence of the crest has conferred the word "Opisthocomus" in the bird's scientific name. Opisthocomus means "wearing long hair behind" in Ancient Greek.
Another distinct trait is its coloring. The Hoatzin's 26 inch body is covered in a brown, beige and tan arrangement of feathers. The feathers are colored dark brown but the wing and tail ends are streaked buff. The mantle and nape of the bird are also streaked buff. The underside of the bird is a creamish-beige color offset by reddish-chestnut flanks. Blood-red eyes encircled by featherless bright blue skin and the dark brown tipped crest, give the Hoatzin, a Cruella Deville look.
The Hoatzin emits deep and hoarse cries, grunts and groans as well as hissing vibrantly. This distinctive audio presence, unlike other birds, is often likened to a smoker's wheezing cough. Hoatzins in a group can be very disturbingly noisy, often emitting such cries in unison to communicate and to warn off threats and invaders.
Another distinguishing physical feature of the Hoatzin is its clawed wings. While these are indistinguishable in an adult bird, the Hoatzin chick has prominent dual claws on each wing, which helps it to grip and pull itself up onto branches. No other avian species has such a physical trait. The presence of such digits indicates that these birds would perhaps climb trees and then use their wings to fly from an elevated point.
The list of distinguishing and downright weird characteristics of the Hoatzin has puzzled ornithologists and researchers alike as to its classification. Appearance-wise, is it a member of the pheasant family or the bustards? Then there are its vegetarian eating habits, another confusing factor. Some features, like the clawed wings and the crest belong to no avian species.
Rather, the Hoatzin bears an uncanny resemblance to the Archaeopteryx, the first known bird. Since that bird no longer exists, the Hoatzin remains in a unique scientific class of its own, as the sole member of the genus Opisthocomus.
All About the Hoatzin's Lifestyle
Despite its fearsome appearance, the Hoatzin is a herbivore and only eats the leaves, fruits and flowers of the marshlands and swamps. Its diet consists primarily of leaves and amongst the various plants of its diet, it favors the mangrove tree. They feed during the wee hours of the morning and during the early evening time.
Birds traditionally break down their food in the gizzard or rumen. Hoatzins on the other hand, process their food in their gut. This is similar to the digestive system of cows and other grazing animals that ruminate their food and is called bacterial fermentation. Like a cow, a Hoatzin will rest for hours in an attempt to digest. Unfortunately this sort of digesting leaves the bird with a bad odor, due to the presence of rotting vegetables in its mouth. Hence the title "Stinkbird".
Hoatzins are social birds, living in a small colony or group of up to 40 birds. They breed during the rainy season of the marshlands and build nests in the forked trees along the river bank. Their nests are perched precariously over the water's surface.
The female lays 2-4 small yellowish eggs with dark spots on them. The incubation period is roughly around 28 days. Once the chick is born, both parents are diligent in its care and feeding but not for a long time. The chick must fend for itself after 10-14 days from its birth. The Hoatzin bird follows the "love 'em, then leave 'em" attitude, when it comes to raising its young.
The Hoatzin chick's claws come into use when predators are around. The nests are vulnerable to the scavenging eyes of hawks. So when a predator soars above, the parents distract it by hissing and making their strange noises.
While this is going on, the chicks try to hide amongst the thicker branches of the tree, clambering around with their claws. If spotted, they will immediately dive into the water below and swim underneath. When the coast is clear, they return to the nest by climbing up the tree with their claws. However on reaching adulthood, the bird loses its aquatic abilities.
The deep marshy dwelling of the Hoatzin is more or less undisturbed and hence this bird species is quite tame and bold around human beings. The horrible odor of the Hoatzin has made it a last resort option for food, so the local indigenous tribes do not hunt it regularly. In fact this species is least threatened in terms of populace. The Hoatzin is a fascinating mix of features and uniqueness and remains a distinct member of the avian species.