Searching for the Poisonous Pitohui

Poisonous birds do not have major medical importance, but are interesting and fascinating in their own right. The following data shows how little we actually know of the natural world. In 1989 a researcher (John P. Dumbacher of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C), netted a specific bird in New Guinea, named Pitohui dichrous ("rubbish bird", fam. Pachycephalidae). They are the size of a thrush, and both male and female have colored patches in their plumage.

After handling a bird, he got scratched. Licking his hands afterwards, he noted numbness of his lips and a burning feeling in his mouth, suggesting the presence of (a) toxin(s). He described it as : "…Within a minute, your tongue tingles, then it burns, and your mouth can go numb for several hours. It’s a lot like tasting hot chili peppers or touching a 9-volt battery…." This was very weird, as poisonous birds were unknown at that time. After investigations, it was found that a complex alkaloid toxin, homobatrachotoxin, was concentrated in feathers and the skin of the animals. The concentration varies depending on the species.


Conservationist Bruce Beehler is pushing through a wild and previously
unexplored jungle in search of a mysterious and poisonous bird native
to Papua New Guinea, the pitohui. His only lead and guide is a local
shaman, who uses poison from the bird in his rituals.

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