The Hoatzin – the oldest bird in the world

I worked many months in the jungle of the Amazon in Peru. In these immensely beautiful primeval forests, where t smells in the morning of arlic blossoming trees and in which one raises one’s eyes involuntarily, when macaws shriek and move across the treetops, there lives a strange animal, which is worth telling about. It is perhaps the oldest bird in the world.

In the area crossed by numerous rivers, there are countless small lakes, where a river has changed its course and a pond has remained in an old bend. At these lakes and at the smaller watercourses of the Jungle the Hoatzin lives in the dense shore bushes. The bird can hardly fly and lives together in small groups. It is about the size of a chicken and can neither be overlooked nor overheard. It caws and screams as soon as one approaches and the branches are covered with its white droppings.

Despite its seemingly tempting edible size, its lack of defence and its visibility in the otherwise discrete jungle, the hoatzin has survived as it has an important property of its own. It does taste ugly. It is said that the meat of the hoatzin is abominable and therefore it bears the name ‘stinging bird’. I haven’t tried it, but the evidence is there because neither the jaguar nor the caiman eat it, although both are numerous in the area. The strong smell is said to come from the fact that the bird – unique and not to be found in any other bird – chews like a cow.

This bird has many more amazing properties. For example, at birth, the young bird has claws on its wing bends that have remained from the time of the dinosaurs. If the chick falls out of the nest, it crawls back up the trunk on its own. The bird also has another remnant of its dinosaur relationship – blue scales around its glaring red eyes.

The study of the relationship of these birds to dinosaurs is just as interesting as the general topic of bird relationships between Europe and Latin America. For example, the Latin American and European vultures are not related to each other. The American neighbour is close to the storks. This shows that the birds separated themselves from the dinosaurs apart from each other and then evolved by adapting to the environment. They got sharp beaks, not because they were related, but because it was needed to eat carrion. The hoatzin is said to have separated from the dinosaurs even more on its own, just before they died out and founding its own species.

In July 2011, Namibiavis senutae, a fossil bird from the early Miocene (23 million years ago), was identified as a relative of hoatzin in Namibia. Even older is the hoatzin-like bird Protoazin parisiensis from the late Eocene, which was found in France. Other fossils were found in Brazil. But how exactly the hoatzin can be assigned is still the subject of extensive scientific debate. Once his the ADN has been deciphered, we are eager to see the result.

Image: U.C. Ringuer

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