Home STEM Potoos


by Tianze Li

Mãe-da-lua-gigante (Nyctibius grandis) – Wikimedia Commons

A flying devil in the middle of the rainforest. This is the potoo bird. Very adorable, a little bit terrifying, it’s one of the most ancient birds from prehistoric times that exist today. To better understand potoos, let’s first hover over their morphology and behavior, then, perch on their habitat and distribution, and finally, brood on the mythology and culture around them. 

Morphology and Behavior

Mãe-da-lua e seu filhote- Wikimedia Commons

Despite looking like the cutest demon, this bird acts like a stick during the day. According to the Handbook of the Birds of the World,  potoos range from around eight to twenty-three inches in length. These birds have very large heads for their body size. The head is dominated by a massive and broad bill and huge eyes. There are slits in their eyelids, which allow them to see with their eyes closed. Their plumage has evolved to blend in with the branches that they sit on during the day. According to Animalogic, if a predator approaches them, they’ll use one of the three defense strategies: to fly away, to pretend to be a part of the branch even harder, or to open their eyes and ruffle their feathers to make themselves look creepy and make the predator leave them alone. 

Common Potoo

These nocturnal birds feed during the night. They snatch insects in the air and swallow without crushing them. The great potoo is big enough to swallow small birds. 

Chien C. Lee

When not hunting or pretending to be a dead stick, they spend their time taking care of their baby. Potoos have a rather minimalist nesting strategy. A spotted egg is laid on the top of a concave branch. During the day, the male incubates the egg. At night, the male and the female take turns incubating and hunting insects. The chick hatches about one month after laying and the nestling phase is two months. To hide from predators, the white feathers of the baby potoo have evolved to resemble clumps of tree fungus. 

Habitat and Distribution

Satellite View of the Americas on Earth Day | NASA

According to BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations (NGOs) that strives to conserve birds, potoos are found in Central and South America, ranging from Mexico to Argentina. Although the population is concentrated in tropical rainforests, potoos have adapted to a wide variety of habitats, including the dry deserts of columbia and the wetlands in Brazil. Potoos are not considered endangered yet. However, forests are being lost all over South and Central America and one day this bird too might go on the verge of extinction.

Mythology and culture

Lianas – Wikipedia

A Native South American legend goes that the bird is the spirit of a woman: it was once a couple which had a fight. The man was angry with his wife, because she didn’t cook enough pumpkin for dinner. To escape from her, he climbed up a woody climbing plant that hangs from trees in the tropical rainforest. As his wife came after him to apologize with a basket full of pumpkins, he cut the plant because of his anger at her. The wife fell and turned into a bird and her husband turned into the moon. The haunting cries of the Great Potoo are said to be the cries of the wife for her husband. 

Due to their meme-able appearance, these birds have become an internet phenomenon in recent years. According to Know Your Meme, in 2013, a gallery of potoo photographs on reddit gained over 16,400 up votes and 500 comments. Four months later, a photograph of a potoo bird was used to create a meme with captions describing strange human behaviors, such as “whenever I am walking alone and there is a cat, I will wave to it” and “when I talk to myself, I explain things as if I’m talking to someone else.”

Symbolic Classic Adoption: Great Potoo – Toucan Rescue Ranch

Today, you learned about the morphology and behavior, habitat and distribution, and mythology and culture of the legendary potoo bird. If you’re not yet fascinated by this bird, linked below there’s a YouTube video of a great potoo with the call of a common potoo!

Potoo birds hauntingly beautiful sound – YouTube

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