the hooded pitohui – toxic songbird
The week before last as I was investigating vernacular words for the various birds that are found in the Ma Manda language area, I encountered mañgoñgok. As I wrote down the name, Tuboin began telling me about how they eat this bird. Typically when I learn about a new animal, I ask them whether they eat it, what it looks like, and what else they might do with it (for instance, using the feathers in the decorations for a particular celebration, or using the claws for magic spells, etc.). Here is what they told me in Tok Pisin:
Mipela save rausim wanpela gras bilong het bilong dispela pisin na subim i go insait long as bilong en. Oke nau mipela rausim narapela gras bilong as bilong em na putim i go insait long maus bilong en. Taim mipela i bihainim dispela pasin, em bai no inap kukim mipela. Tasol sapos mipela i no mekim dispela, oke em bai pait nogut tru ia!
In English now:
We pull out a feather from this bird’s head and push it up into its anus. Then we take a feather from around its anus and put it in its mouth. When we follow this custom, it won’t burn us. But if we don’t do this, it will burn like crazy.
So I was sitting and listening to this story, wondering as I often do how this custom began. With my Western mindset I contemplate whether the people understand that it’s just superstition. I explain as much as possible as scientifically as possible. That’s what we Westerners tend to do. Then I looked up the picture in the book (Birds of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago: A Photographic Guide, by Brian J. Coates) to find the name of the bird and to double check that this is in fact the bird they were discussing. It was the Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous). Here’s a picture:
The first line in the book caught my attention: “This species recently became famous as the first known poisonous bird – when toxin was discovered in its feathers and skin…” (166). Fascinating! Now wonder they had a superstition about it!
Apparently, in 1989 American scientist John Dumbacher stumbled across the Hooded Pitohui as he was investigating the Raggiana Birds of Paradise. After accidentally catching them in a net, then handling them, and then later putting his finger in his mouth to soothe a cut he got, he noticed a tingling and burning sensation. He goes on, “The next time we caught a pitohui, we tasted a feather, and there was the tingling burning sensation – and the toxin. When we asked the local guides, they all seemed to know about this” (http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/factfile/5123/hooded-pitohui-toxic-songbird). “Dumbacher investigated further by applying a feather directly to his tongue and found the sensation could last for hours. Carting some pitohui feathers back to the U.S., he showed chemist John Daly at the National Institute of Health, who in 1992 identified the presence of batrachotoxins, extremely potent neurotoxic steroidal alkaloids that in high doses can lead to paralysis, cardiac arrest and death. Gram for gram, it is one of the most toxic natural substances known, and had been identified by Daly years earlier in the poison dart frogs of South America. That year the poisonous pitohui found itself on the cover of Science.”
That’s the picture at the top of this post. Apparently the bird gets the poison by eating a certain type of beetle:
“…a further discovery made by New Guinea villagers that the pitohuis got their batrachotoxins by feeding on small, colourful melyrid beetles. “We found the same toxins in these beetles, and we found the beetles in the birds’ stomachs.” “
Pretty cool huh? The Hooded Pitohui – toxic songbird.