Birds were the last major group of vertebrates in which poison or venom was identified by scientists, though local people had long known that some birds taste foul and cause numbness if handled.
In 1989, researchers found that the hooded pitohui (pronounced ‘pit-o-weez’) of Papua New Guinea had toxic feathers and skin. Later studies showed that, like poison-dart frogs, the toxicity derives from its diet, in this case beetles.
Four other New Guinean birds are now known to be poisonous – three pitohui species and the blue-capped ifrita – and ornithologists think there may be more poisonous birds out there.
Main image: An illustration of the hooded pitohui. © Ruth Lindsay/Getty images
Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.