Meet the Strange, Silly, and Spectacular Potoo

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Today’s venture into the category of “Nature is Really, Really Weird,” we bring you one of the funniest-looking, strangest-sounding, and expert-camouflaging creatures of the animal kingdom. Meet the potoo.

Depending on whether it wants to be seen, you can’t help but notice this amazing bird. Its massive yellow eyes and oddly wide mouth make it perfect to audition as a regular on the Muppet Show or Sesame Street.

If it doesn’t want you to see it, you’re going to have to look very hard to catch a glimpse. The potoo’s coloring allows it to blend almost seamlessly against tree branches, making it virtually indistinguishable from the tree itself.

The camouflage skills of the common potoo allow it to appear to be part of a tree branch.

The seven species of potoo make up the Nyctibius genus. Each species closely resembles the others in appearance, with the most notable differences being in size and calls. They range in size from 21-58 cm (8-23 inches). Their large yellow eyes have two or three slits in the eyelid, allowing it to see, even when its eyes are closed. When open, it has spectacular nighttime vision.

The potoo’s diet consists primarily of insects. Its wide mouth allows it to snatch flies and moths while perched at the end of a branch.

Nest of a potoo.

Indeed, the potoo seems to have an affinity for the end of branches. It typically chooses the stump of a branch as its nest, where it deposits a single egg. No other material is added, such as twigs, grass, or feathers; it simply uses a naturally occurring hollow to hold the egg until it hatches.

These unusual birds can be found from southern Mexico through the lowlands of central South America, including some islands of the Caribbean.

Listen to the sound of the common potoo

The potoo’s camouflaging skills and unusual appearance would be enough to make it stand out in the animal kingdom. No discussion of the potoo would be complete, however, without mentioning its distinctive call.

The birds are sometimes called poor-me-ones because of their haunting nighttime calls. The POO-POO-Poo-poo-poo of the common potoo (see adjacent video) is typical for most of the species.

It is the northern potoo, however, whose call goes beyond “haunting” and can only be described as “horrifying.” Imagine, if you will, that you are alone on a dark, moonless night. You are lost, wandering aimlessly through the Amazon jungles when suddenly the air is pierced with this unexpected sound:

Seriously, if that doesn’t freak you out, you truly have nerves of steel. In fact, this writer’s wife kept panicking every time the sound was played in the course of preparing this article.

The only thing that could be worse would be if the northern potoo teamed up with the werewolf mouse. That would certainly be the stuff of nightmares.

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