In the swamplands and along the river banks of the
Amazon and the Orinoco there lives a bird that swims before it can fly,
flies like a fat chicken, eats green leaves, has the stomach of a cow
and has claws on its wings when young.
It would not be out of place
in Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, but it is real.It is called the hoatzin.
In appearance, the adult
looks like a cross between a domestic chicken and a secretary bird.Male and female look very much alike
with brown on the back and cream and rusty red underneath. The head is
small, with a large crest on the top, bright red eyes, and electric blue
skin. Its nearest relatives are the cuckoos. Its most remarkable feature,
though, is not found in the adult but in the young.
Baby hoatzins have a claw on the leading edge of
each wing and another at the end of each wing tip. Using these four
claws, together with the beak, they can clamber about in the undergrowth,
looking very much like primitive birds must have done. The hoatzin,
however, could, not be considered a primitive bird.
It is a highly specialised
During the drier months between December and March
hoatzins fly about the forest in flocks containing 20-30 birds, but in
April, when the rainy season begins, they collect together in smaller
breeding units of two to seven individuals.They build their nests about
4.6m above the river, an important feature for the survival of the young.
When danger threatens them, in the form of a snake
or a monkey, the young hoatzins – maybe three in one nest – dive
over the side and into the river. They swim about under the
water until it is safe to return and then, using their claws, haul
themselves up through the branches and back to the nest.
When they have learned to fly they lose
their claws and escape predators not by swimming but by flapping off, in
a rather ungainly fashion, to a neighbouring tree.