Few bird groups are as mysterious and under-studied as the Potoos of Latin America. These champions of camouflage can be almost impossible to see unless they’re in motion. Perhaps this is why they’ve found their way into the legends and stories of indigenous people.
Potoos are small to medium-sized birds, with the smallest Rufous Potoo weighing about 50 grams and the largest Great Potoo more than ten times that. They are therefore quite variable in size. On the other hand, they show a remarkable similarity in body proportions and especially in coloration.
If there were a camouflage championship, the potoos would undoubtedly take first place among birds. The complex zoological description of their appearance could be simplified to: they resemble a piece of dry branch.
But that might be too brief of a description, so let me mention a few interesting details. Their plumage does indeed resemble the dry, cracked bark of the tree on which they usually perch. This includes patches and structures that mimic lichen. In fact, like sloths, they sometimes let their tail feathers cover with green lichen to better blend in with their perches.
The potoo’s large, bulging eyes with deep yellow irises are striking. These could easily reveal their owner, which is why potoos have oddly shaped eyelids. When they close, they do not fit tightly together, but leave a small, barely perceptible slit through which the birds can observe their surroundings.
The potoo’s inconspicuous coloration is matched by their dedication to sitting still. If you come across a potoo during the day, you’re almost certain to pass it unnoticed. Even if you stare at it, if someone shows it to you, it will take a moment for your brain to process that you’re looking at a bird, not a tree branch.
Potoos deliberately choose places for their daily roosts where, once perched, they look like an optical extension of a broken tree or palm trunk, or the stump of a dry branch. You would hang a photo backpack on them. And right up to the last moment, potoos would tolerate it, too. Their confidence in their own camouflage is so strong that they really only choose flight as a last option.
When a potential predator approaches the potoos, their relaxed position changes to a super camouflaged alert posture. Their head stiffens, their body stretches slightly, and their eyes close even more. Now they’re really indistinguishable from a broken branch.
This remarkable characteristic is reflected in the names given to them in the places where they live. Bienparado (perfectly still) or Pajaro Estaca (wooden stake bird) in Mexico. In Argentina and Bolivia, they are called Urutau. This name is a combination of the words guyra ‘bird’ and tau ‘ghost’ from the Tupi Indian language.
Their nests are also subject to strict camouflage rules. That is, if a small natural depression in a branch can be called a nest. No material lining the nest cavity, nor any droppings around it, betray the presence of a defenseless egg or chick. The potoo also cares for its chick in the most secretive manner. It takes a full month for the egg to hatch, and another two months for the chick to leave the nest. This is one of the longest nesting periods among land birds.
As night falls, the motionless stump changes. Now the potoo watches for passing insects from its favorite night perch. Large eyes on a large head with a relatively small brain register every movement. On its long, broad wings, it makes short swoops at its prey. Its flight resembles that of a giant butterfly.
On moonlit nights – most often at full moon – potoos begin to produce their strange song. Perhaps that is why one of their Brazilian names is Mãe-da-lua (Mother of the Moon). To be honest, I cannot say that their voice is always pleasant to the human ear. Turn off your lights, close your eyes, and imagine you’re walking through the Amazon jungle at night. Now play a recording of the Great Potoo. A little spooky, isn’t it? No wonder its voice is considered a sign of impending death.
In some places in Brazil, people believe that the song of the White-winged Potoo belongs to Curupiro, the mythical forest spirit who protects animals from hunters.
The song of the Common Potoo sounds somewhat mournful. Its distinctive voice has earned it the onomatopoeic name, Poor-me-one in Trinidad. In Peru, for a change, you might hear the name Ayaymama, because its song is reminiscent of a child’s cry of “ai, ai, mama!”
According to legend, a mother from a desperate Indian tribe, plagued by a deadly infectious disease, took her child into the forest and abandoned it. The poor and desperate child has been wandering the forest ever since, calling for his mother.
Another story from Bolivia tells another sad tale. In a certain tribe, there was a girl who fell in love with a warrior. But her father did not approve of the romance and decided to prevent it at all costs. He killed his daughter’s lover and disposed of the body. When she found out what had happened, she threatened her father with telling the people of the tribe. The father became furious and turned the poor daughter into a bird so that no one would know of his terrible deed. However, the girl’s unhappy voice was preserved even in her bird form. Therefore, at night, she always mourns the death of her beloved with a sad and melancholic song.
According to the customs of some Amazonian Indians, the feathers of the potoos also have special magical powers. They should ensure chastity, fidelity, and restraint. That’s why mothers sweep with the tail feathers of these birds under their daughters’ hammocks. Elsewhere, teenage girls must sit on the skin of a potoo for three days and listen to the advice of their elders as they grow up.
Well, my daughter is growing up, too. Maybe I should borrow from these traditions and sweep under her bed with some potoo feathers. Just in case.